The Anatomy of Feelings: What Part of the Brain Controls Emotions?

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Alexandra Tudor
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Highlights: We experience many mental states on a daily basis, but do you know what part of the brain controls emotions? Discover the part responsible for all that we feel.
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We are emotional beings—from happiness to sadness, fear, anger, love, and everything in between. But have you ever thought about what part of the brain controls emotions? 

These feelings seem to happen automatically and sometimes feel outside the realm of our control. But emotions are very much a mental process.

Diving deeper into knowledge about how your brain is functioning may help you bring more awareness to your mind-body connection. Because as much as your emotions are felt through your senses, your brain is deeply connected to this process.

What Part of the Brain Controls Emotions?

The limbic system makes up the part of the brain that’s responsible for our emotions. Within it, these are the areas that dictate them: 

  • Hypothalamus
  • Hippocampus
  • Amygdala
  • Limbic Cortex

The last part contains two structures, the cingulate gyrus, and the parahippocampal gyrus, which have huge effects on your mood, motivation, and judgment.

The hypothalamus regulates emotions by controlling the autonomic nervous system. It also controls the endocrine system, which is responsible for hormone production and release.

The hypothalamus also controls our physical reactions to emotion. Ever had butterflies in your stomach after you see someone you like? Or tingling in your legs after you’ve been scared? This is all the work of the hypothalamus.

The three hormones responsible for many of your emotions are:

  • Adrenaline (stress and anxiety)
  • Oxytocin (love and affection)
  • Dopamine (pleasure and reward) among several others

So much as emotions have a psychological aspect to their structure, they also have a strong physiological foundation.

A custom graphic show what part of the brain controls emotions

How Does the Limbic System Control Emotions?

The hypothalamus, amygdala, thalamus, and hippocampus are the four main components of the limbic system:

  • The hypothalamus controls the endocrine system. The effects on your body are a faster heartbeat, dilated pupils, and quicker breathing.
  • The amygdala is related to feelings of fear, anxiety, and anger. In collaboration with the hypothalamus, the amygdala is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.
  • The thalamus is responsible for directing sense into the corresponding areas in the cortex. In the context of emotions, the senses influence them immensely. This is why certain nostalgic songs may trigger an emotional response.
  • The hippocampus processes sensory input and helps the limbic system produce an appropriate reaction. It converts short-term to long-term memory and ties emotions into memories.

The brain is a complex piece of organic machinery. And even when it feels as if our emotions are out of control, there are actually many predictable, structured processes responsible for our emotional responses.

What Part of the Brain Controls Mood and Emotional Behavior?

We know all about the brain centers that control breathing, balance, and speech. But what are the less tangible aspects of our behavior? What about our emotions?

Your emotional response and your general mood are generated in the amygdala. But it’s the prefrontal cortex that’s responsible for planning future action, a.k.a. the way you behave based on those emotions.

For example, if you thought about robbing a bank, your prefrontal cortex would help you process the idea and connect it to an appropriate emotional response.

If the amygdala is damaged, you lose control of base impulses. In fact, you may even begin to act in an inappropriate way. (Disinhibited behavior, hypersexuality, and risk-taking are behavioral consequences of a damaged amygdala.)

What Does Science Say?

Here are some interesting scientific facts when it comes to the way your brain works and controls emotions:

  • If you’re wondering what part of the brain controls anger, studies show that people with damage to their prefrontal cortex may have problems regulating their anger and frustration.
  • Scholars have found that happiness originates from the limbic cortex, but another part of the brain called the precuneus also plays a role. And according to a 2015 study, people with more gray matter in their right precuneus were shown to be overall happier.
  • It might cut down on romanticism, but according to some studies, the excitement and nervousness of the falling-in-love state are actually stress responses triggered by your hypothalamus.
  • Sadness is experienced in the amygdala and left prefrontal cortex. But what’s interesting to note is that the amygdala shows more inactivity in those suffering from clinical depression.

The bottom line is that when you think of what part of the brain controls your emotions, the scientific response isn’t a general one. Different emotions are correlated with distinct parts of the brain.

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Alexandra Tudor

Alexandra Tudor

Alexandra Tudor is a former content writer for Mindvalley and a psychology enthusiast. From clinical experience working with both children and adults, she's now in the process of becoming a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in the IFS method and family constellation therapy.
Written by

Alexandra Tudor

Alexandra Tudor is a former content writer for Mindvalley and a psychology enthusiast. From clinical experience working with both children and adults, she's now in the process of becoming a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in the IFS method and family constellation therapy.

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