Anatomy of emotion

Anatomy of emotion

The part of the brain that controls and processes emotions is the limbic system and its centre of emotional processing is the amygdala.

The neurobiological explanation for human emotion is the pleasant and unpleasant mental states organised in the limbic system of the mammalian brain.

View Source


Emotions are more instinctual and physical and can be measured more easily than feelings through bodily expressions such as blood flow, brain activity, striking behaviour etc. Emotions are the lower part of our nature and we share them with animals. Primitive emotions deal mainly with bodily issues and survival. Their processing takes place in the older regions of the brain, in those parts which from the evolutionary point of view are primitive, impulsive and uncritical.


In developmental respect emotions preceded feelings. Emotions are biochemical and electrical signals (arousal) that emerged in animal bodies as they were evolving by adaptation to the environment. Emotions and feelings are mammalian elaborations of arousal patterns that can already be found in reptiles. Reptiles react to their environment by using pre-set body movements and programmed postures. Neurochemicals step-up or step-down the brain's activity and human emotions are an enhancement of this evolutionary neurochemical process.


Amygdala takes centre stage in the processing of emotionality. It is the seat of fear, anger, sadness, and other negative emotions. This makes sense given that the primitive emotional part of the brain deals with physical survival. The fundamental, negative emotions foster self-assertion and self-preservation in the evolutionary struggle of animal species. It’s in the amygdala and parts of the limbic system where emotional memories are consolidated.

View Source


From evolutionary point of view a feeling is a more recent human capability. Feelings are emotions associated with thoughts (cognition, mentality). Feelings are emotions that are processed first in the lower brain levels and then farther in the upper brain (cerebral cortex) - the youngest part of the brain where mental faculties are based and can process emotions. It’s in the (prefrontal) cortex where the positive feelings of happiness and pleasure originate.

A feeling is a mental thought about an emotion that is being experienced. A thought assigns a meaning to an emotional arousal, a meaning that is always tinted through personal memories, experience and knowledge. The association of an emotion with a thought usually happens subconsciously, so quite frequently the linking of emotions and thoughts seems to happen automatically and unwittingly.


Emotion + Thought

Emotion In a nutshell

Emotion is an inner experience of excitement originating from the physical arousal of the nervous system. Human mentality adds thoughts to the emotional aspect and thus creates feelings.