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What Part of the Brain Controls Emotions?

By Dr. Usmarah Hussain

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What Part of the Brain Controls Emotions

It wouldn’t be wrong to call the brain the master of your body. From moving your pinky finger to regulating your heart rate, the organ flawlessly controls and coordinates everything. But not many people pay attention to one of its lesser-known superpowers: producing emotions. The happy, sad, angry, or teary feelings you have every single day are all produced within the brain, but where? Which part of the brain controls emotions? Are there specific areas to produce specific feelings? Keep reading to find out

An Overview of Emotional Regulation

Imagine walking to the kitchen, thinking about something that happened at work today. Suddenly, your roommate comes out from a corner with a silly mask on to jump-scare you. What happens next? This simple trick immediately triggers a certain reaction in the body that elevates your heart rate and may force you to scream a bit. A few seconds later, you realize it was just your roommate messing with you, and there wasn’t any real threat present. You may even laugh with them about the prank or get angry about how it was too intense for them to handle. This simple example shows how your brain processes everyday situations and uses them as cues to produce and regulate emotions.

So what are emotions anyway? In simplest words, emotions refer to feelings, such as fear, sadness, anger, happiness, or joy, triggered by something meaningful to you that you can easily express with your body language. In the example mentioned above, the scary prank served as a trigger to produce a variety of emotions, one after the other. The initial shock or scary feeling was the very first emotion that may lead to the following two situations:

  1. Believing that a scary intruder has broken into the house and is about to harm you
  2. Realizing that the intruder is your roommate only trying to mess with you

Each of the above responses acts as a clue, leading to different responses, such as the initial surprise. The first ones force you to run away, while the other one tells you it is probably nothing to worry about. Within a split second, you make which emotion to go ahead with and which one to suppress. This ability to control emotions in time and let them shape your behavior is what we call emotional regulation. [1]

Considering we go through tons of emotions every day, have you ever wondered how a tiny organ like the brain singlehandedly produces and regulates all of them? Let’s dive deeper into the anatomy of the brain to find out which areas are involved in emotional regulation

The Emotional Brain: Dissecting the Areas Producing and Regulating Your Feelings

Emotions are associated with a bunch of areas in the brain, collectively known as the limbic system. The limbic system, or the emotional brain, oversees many other activities apart from emotional processing, such as learning, memory, and regulation of the stress response in reaction to perceived. Threats and dangers. Present beneath the cerebrum; the limbic system generates and controls various emotions through hormonal and nervous regulation by involving the following areas:

The Emotional Brain


Embedded in the temporal lobe of the brain, the hippocampus is a tiny, curved area that primarily helps with the conversion of short-term memory into long-term memory.


The hypothalamus closely works with the hormonal system of the body to maintain balance. It also connects with the pituitary gland, a gland that regulates hormones, including cortisol (stress hormone) and oxytocin (the love hormone). [2]


The thalamus acts as a two-way street that conducts information from the spinal cord to the cerebrum and vice versa. The area plays a crucial role in processing information related to anxious reactions and thoughts. Consider the thalamus as a filtering gate responsible for distribution of every piece of information coming in from the outside world. Apart from the olfactory input i.e., information picked up through the sense of smell, it receives every other signal coming from the ears, eyes, skin, and tongue and conveys it to the outermost part of the brain, called the cerebral cortex and amygdala. [3]

Cingulate Gyrus

This arch-shaped structure in the frontal lobe of the brain plays a critical role in regulating behaviors driven by emotions. Experts also believe its role in associating rewards and punishments with emotional behaviors.

The Amygdala

The amygdala constitutes a series of deep neural circuits found in the temporal lobe. [4] This part of the brain chiefly regulates fear and pleasure, and any injury leads to poor decision-making. Consider the amygdala as your body’s built-in response system that goes off whenever it perceives a potentially dangerous situation. In this way, it defends the body, keeping it safe and in its comfort zone. The amygdala also impacts emotional memory and fear conditioning. Called the birthplace of emotional reactions, this part of the brain conditions humans to repeat the same old patterns and reactions.

Emotions and the Brain: Where do Everyday Feelings Stem From?

Thanks to tons of MRI studies and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanning, experts now know the exact areas responsible for producing different emotions we experience on a daily basis. Let’s look at some of these emotions and learn where they truly stem from within the brain.

Emotion Regulation and the Brain


Experts believe that happiness switches in several areas in the brain, such as the left insula, the right frontal cortex, the left amygdala, and the precuneus. [5]


Fear is another complicated emotion that involves various sub-emotions, such as thinking from the frontal cortex, a sense of urgency for survival coming from the hypothalamus, and a gut feeling originating from the amygdala.


The sad feelings you experience are a result of the activity in the left insula, the left thalamus, and the hippocampus. [6] Because the hippocampus is associated with memory, it can also link certain memories with sad feelings.


Disgust is an interesting feeling involving the activation and inter-relation between the left inferior frontal cortex, the left amygdala, and the insular cortex.


Anger is a critical emotion that many people, including children and adults, attempt to control on a day-to-day basis. This feeling generates due to a combined activation of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex on both sides, the right hippocampus and the insular cortex.

Can You Lose Control Over Your Emotions? Signs of Emotional Dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation is a feeling which involves emotions that are out of proportion compared to the situation triggering them. [7] This may mean different things for different people, such as an inability to calm down, avoidance of difficult emotions, or focusing more on negative emotions. Many people with an underlying emotion-regulating issue may adopt impulsive behavior when it comes to emotions, such as fear, anger, or sadness, making them out of control.

Mentioned below are some examples of incidents depicting emotional dysregulation in everyday life:

  • Your spouse cancels the dinner plan, pushing you to decide that they do not love you anymore and making you cry all night and binge on food.
  • You attend an office party where everyone seems to be having fun, and you feel like an outsider. You end up leaving early and overeating at home to numb your pain.
  • The salesgirl at a bake shop tells you that they ran out of your favorite cookies. You experience an angry outburst and yell at them.

If continued for long, emotional dysregulation may exert various negative effects on adult life. Some of these effects are summarized below:

  • You may find it difficult to sleep
  • You may experience negative impacts on your work, school, or social functioning
  • You may find it difficult to let go of your experiences or start keeping grudges longer than usual
  • You face trouble in conflict resolution
  • You often get into minor arguments that you quickly blow out of proportion, sometimes to the point that you end up breaking relationships
  • You may develop a mental health disorder, such as depression, at some point in life due to consistently poor emotional regulation
  • You might engage in self-harm or other harmful behaviors related to food, such as binge eating or restrictive eating
  • You may be tempted to develop a substance use disorder and abuse drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes

If you have started showing signs of emotional dysregulation, do not hesitate to seek help immediately. A psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist can help you fight through the problem and let you regain control of your emotions. They may also perform certain tests to rule out any medical cause and work with you to sort out a long-term management plan.

End Note

Emotions are complex feelings generated by different parts of your brain working seamlessly to support each other. These emotions makeup who we are and greatly define our personalities. Unfortunately, it is quite common to lose control over how we express ourselves due to a multifactorial condition called emotional dysregulation. Thankfully, emotional dysregulation is manageable, and with the right support from a mental health professional, you can regain the lost control of these emotions with dedication and time.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do we have emotions?

It might be frustrating to have emotions at times, such as bawling out at your favorite Disney film, but these emotions make us human. The evolution of human society goes hand in hand with these emotions. They help us get along with others by displaying our feelings and letting us interpret others’ behaviors. Emotions also help us understand how a person is going to act and guide us about how to react in response. For example, if someone smiles at you, you naturally smile back. These emotions help us connect with each other and allow meaningful communication to occur.

What part of the brain controls the emotions of a surprise?

Surprise is a diverse emotion that can either make you feel happy or sad. Whenever something surprising comes your way, it activates two areas in the brain: the bilateral hippocampus and the inferior frontal gyri. The hippocampus is responsible for regulating memory, and, in most cases, the element of surprise is related to experiencing something that you are not expecting or do not remember, explaining its involvement.

What are the causes of emotional dysregulation?

Emotional dysregulation describes a condition where you lose control of how you express your feelings. There can be multiple reasons causing this issue; however, psychological trauma is believed to be the commonest of all. In many cases, this type of trauma stems from neglect or abuse on the part of a loved one or a caretaker. Sometimes, an underlying psychiatric illness may also lead interrupt your ability to regulate emotions. Some examples of these illnesses include bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and borderline personality disorder.


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