Your “Feelings” and Your Brain

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


Our (emotional) feelings and (rational) thoughts operate from different parts of our brain. Put another way, how we “feel” and how we think (rationally) are not coming from the “same place” in your brain. Our “upper brain” is what makes us more evolved from our arboreal cousins in that we have a highly developed neocortex (lit: new brain) of which our frontal and temporal lobes are critical elements in the processing of our learning and memory, as well as critical thinking, problem-solving, planning, learning from our mistakes in constructive way, our capacity for language, auditory learning etc. – pretty much what makes us human and what has allowed us to become the masters of the planet.

Equally important are our raw emotions from our evolutionary past. These “feelings” are deeply wired into us – our feelings of love, anger, jealousy, joy, etc. are very much alive in us – inside of our “older” or “lower brain”, or to be specific: our Limbic System which is also known as our “emotional region”.  The Limbic system is composed of the following:

  • Hippocampus: this is the “builder” of learning and memories
  • Amygdala: this provides the “emotional signature” to each memory formed
  • Thalmus: the brain’s “neurotransmitter bureaucracy” deciding which information (arriving from our five senses) are eligible to be passed on to the “Boss” or “Higher Brain” (esp. frontal lobes)
  • Hypothalmus: this segment is involved in homeostasis (which helps maintain overall balance in your entire biological system) and the release of hormones through your pituitary gland.

Here are some of what the Limbic System is actually involved with:

  • Setting the Emotional Tone of your Mental Health Mind
  • Filtering of events through our internal state, or setting the Emotional Tone for how we (emotionally) perceive events
  • The builder of memories and learning – all of this is connected with our emotions. Learning is not confined to the classroom – it is a constant lifelong process involved in all aspects of our lives throughout our lifespan
  • Modulation of our Sleep, Appetite, etc.
  • Plays a key role in how we “Connect” with other people and also our process of bonding in relationships

Note that the “emotional brain” is also connected to the Basal Ganglia – below are a number of its functions:

  • Integration of our Feelings and Movements: for example, the movements we apply on the steering wheel when we drive a car
  • The control and smooth function of our fine motor movements: for example, when writing with a pen; typing on a keyboard, playing the piano, etc.
  • Management of behaviors or speech: for example the sense of knowing of what is appropriate to say or do in various situations
  • A “Thermostat” of our body’s idle speed or anxiety level such as the sense of being very relaxed or highly stressed
  • Modulation of our Motivation, such as the sense of being energetic and wanting to do things versus not being in the mood to do things

Your Feelings and Your Brain’s Neurotransmitters

Your brain is laden with a large variety of neurotransmitters. What is of key interest is how neuroscientists and researchers in related disciplines have found strong relations between your feelings and your neurotransmitters. Below is list of these neurotransmitters and how Your Feelings are expressed through these. Note that in each case, balance is key (not too little and not much):

Glutamine: This is strongly implicated in our Learning and Memory. This biochemical provides our brain with “plasticity” allowing us to learn new things, making us more open to new ideas and learning. Another way of thinking about Glutamine is that this is “fuel” for learning and memory which is also important for attention and focus. Too much Glutamine however can lead to impulsivity and even violence. This is like pressing the gas petal in your car too much (going full throttle) which leads to dangerous driving.

GABA: Just as Glutamine is the “fuel” and “throttle”, the GABA can act as the brake system of your brain. GABA is critical to make sure you “slow down” and elevate your sense of calmness. This is like using your brakes to ensure that you don’t pass the “speed limit” as you drive. GABA is also involved in solidifying what you have just learned, both inside the classroom as well as outside the classroom in day to day life situations.

Oxytocyn: This can be called the “Love Potion Number 9” of neurotransmitters. This is the neurotransmitter that makes us feel connected to others, experience the mother-child bond and (literally) fall in love with another human being, etc. Note the key role of this in our sense of empathy, compassion and understanding for others. Deficiency of oxytocin can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness and avoidance of contacts with fellow human beings.

Dopamine: This is the “Reward” neurotransmitter linked to varieties of pleasure-type sensations. This is highly adaptive when we get the sense of gratification as we learn a new task, set goals and work to achieve them, etc. Too much Dopamine is associated with addiction just as too little of this is associated with depression.

Serotonin: Our sense of being at peace, having contentment, tranquility, and being “cool” with ourselves and our environment. Like Dopamine, too little Serotonin can lead to depression. Serotonin however is also a key neurotransmitter for our learning and memory as well as other cognitive operations important for school. Too much Serotonin is not adaptive either as it leads to anxiety, restlessness and serious health challenges (e.g. abdominal pain, heartburn, nausea).

Adenosine: This neurotransmitter is the “sleep drug” and is critical for our mental and physical health. When sufficient amounts of Adenosine build up in our brain and body throughout the day, we will then get that sleepy-drowsy feeling and hopeful drift into adaptive REM sleep.

Endorphins: This is the “pain killer” neurotransmitter. If our levels of endorphins are low, then we will be more sensitive to pain. However, if our Endorphin levels are balanced, we will be more capable of experiencing a sense of relaxation and even a sense of joy.

Noradrenaline: Noradrenaline (like Adrenaline) is the “energy” neurotransmitter. The Fight-Flight reflex (which elevates our heart rate) in response to perceived danger comes from Adrenaline. This (Fight-Flight reflex) is our inheritance from our evolutionary past when we had to dodge dangerous predators such as giant sabre-toothed tigers chasing us in the morning for breakfast. However, even as we now live in a modern society free of wild predators, we still experience the Fight-Flight reflex in response to social stressors (i.e. mean words, labelling, criticism, etc.), work (i.e. worry for job security, anticipation for a possible job promotion, etc.) and school (e.g. exam stress, presentation anxiety, handing in assignments late, etc.).

Cortisol: This is the “stress hormone” that is activated in response to stressful situations. Research studies have found that cortisol can also be stimulated in social and work situations where trust is lacking. An example of this can occur when a colleague, supervisor, fellow student or instructor is making an “objective” observation of one’s performance. Studies have found that it is not just the content of the “objective” comments (e.g. you did X when you should have done Y) but that the “emotional tone” of that communication is as (if not more) significant. It has been found that persons who receive “objective” feedback with a negative “emotional tone” will elicit cortisol in their physiology. In contrast when the “emotional tone” is positive and supportive, even if when being informed of a mistake, the person will often elicit Serotonin in their physiology.

An Example of Feelings on Contemporary Issues

While this topic certainly requires more studies and research, there are indications that the brains of persons with entrenched conservative views are “wired” different from persons with more open, flexible and progressive viewpoints. As noted by Blanchard:

Conservative-leaning people tend to have larger amygdale, the brain’s emotional processing center, while liberals generally have a more active anterior cingulate cortex, an area responsible for taking in new information and understanding its impact while making decisions … Our neural network structures diverge so starkly along party lines that we can, in fact, actually predict a person’s political leanings, with 95 percent accuracy or more, from a single fMRI image” [2017, p.28-29]

The implications of these reports are of course, remarkable to say the least. It is notable that Ricard, Lutz and Davidson note the relationship between volume of the amygdala and fear processing (2017, pp.63, 67). Put simply, there is a relationship between having more volume in the amygdala and an increased sense of anxiety. It is also interesting that the prospect of change with respect to society, religion, etc. can induce anxiety in individuals with more conservative ideas who in turn often have a larger amygdala-volume.

In addition to the amygdala, excessive activity in the “lowest” regions of the “Emotional Brain”, roughly in the brain-stem region, appear to be also associated with an obsessive sense of “protecting” one’s beliefs (religious, intellectual, cultural, etc.), status, reputation and sense of power.


Amen, D. (1999). Change Your Brain, Change Your Life: The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Anger, and Impulsiveness. Harmony Books.

Blanchard, K. (2017). Why conservatives and liberals can’t talk. It’s All in Your Head Series [Special Edition] – Your Brain: The Art, Magic and Science of What Makes You You, pp.28-29.

Hertzog, Kramer, Wilson, and Lindenberger (2015). Fit Body, Fit Mind? Scientific American Mind: Behavior-Brain Science-Insights (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp.20-21, 32-39.

Ricard, M., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R.J. (2017). Mind of the meditator. Scientific American Mind: Behavior-Brain Science-Insights (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp.61-67.

Zak, P.J. (2019). The Neuroscience of Trust. Harvard Business Review-Special Edition, 1, pp.44-49.

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