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  • Writer's pictureAna Sofia Chamorro

Neuroscience News

The truth behind the chemicals we call emotions

Have you ever felt joy when talking to a certain person or performing a certain activity? Well, this feeling of happiness is just the firing of neurons. But, what is really happening in your body, and how does this affect your emotions?

Emotions are a conscious mental reaction subjectively experienced as strong feelings usually directed toward a specific object, accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This relates to the limbic system, or the part of the brain that controls our behavioral and emotional responses, especially those necessary for our survival. One such response is caring for the young. These, however, are responses in charge of keeping us alive rather than making us feel something.

This image depicts the two main areas of the brain responsible for behavioral and emotional responses: the neocortex, or the gooey pinkish material that characterizes the brain, and the limbic system. Image credit.

Now, what causes these feelings of joy, sadness, anger? The answer is chemicals. The brain controls the release of certain chemicals known as neurotransmitters which communicate with other areas of the brain to stimulate or calm us. A chemical imbalance in neurotransmitters can result in mental illnesses, some as severe as schizophrenia and clinical depression. While there are multiple factors that affect your mood, such as weather and relationships, there are 4 chemicals that provoke everything we feel; they are Serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, and oxytocin.

Serotonin (the mood regulator) is responsible for your feelings of happiness and your mood, and even your sleep cycle and appetite. The serotonin in your brain (when at adequate levels) allows you to feel emotionally stable and calm, and it will give you higher levels of energy and focus as well. When serotonin levels are low, depression, anxiety and panic attacks are likely to arise.

Dopamine, or the feel-good neurotransmitter is the feeling of pleasure that emerges after we do our favorite things. Dopamine allows you to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. This brain chemical is generally good, but it is in fact heavily linked to addictions; this is because, no matter how bad the activity you’re doing is, it makes you feel good.

Adrenaline is the hormone in charge of your body's “fight or flight” response because it helps you react to the situations you’re undergoing, especially when dangerous or stressful. Adrenaline is released when your brain experiences excitement, threats, or danger. Have you ever heard the expression ‘adrenaline rush’? This occurs when your brain perceives all of the emotions that trigger adrenaline in one particular activity, such as skydiving.

Oxytocin, finally, is known as the “love hormone” because it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. It promotes trust, empathy and bonding; because of this we can conclude that oxytocin is responsible for all our relationships. It’s surprising how so many simple activities can help boost your oxytocin levels and help you feel better; some of these are petting a dog, making eye contact with someone, meditation and praying, and specially hugging someone.

This is how your brain looks when you experience all these emotions. Red and yellow refer to a certain behavior, while purples are for the responses. Image credit

When we say we’re happy, we are actually saying that we have serotonin, and when we say we’re not satisfied with our work, we’re actually saying that it didn’t create dopamine. There are thousands of aspects in our daily lives that trigger these chemicals, many of which are unappreciated and remain concealed. I think that my primary dopamine-producing activity is playing volleyball because it excites me and gives me pleasure; I can even feel the difference in my motivation from the days I play volleyball and the days I don’t. Another simple activity that calms me is talking to my mom and my friends about anything and everything. This, in fact, makes me feel “warm and fuzzy.” What activities make you happy?

This picture depicts my team praying before our first game in AASCA. Now, as I see all of these pictures and dwell on the memories we made on our trips to Costa Rica, I’m filled with joy and nostalgia. Image credit: Ana Sofia Chamorro

What To Do If You’re Heartbroken

“The most intimate relationship is the one between your head and heart,” says Melissa Hill, a student of neuroscience and writer of the New York Times. “They talk like best friends via the common carotid artery, which sends blood from the heart to the brain at a running speed of three feet per second.”

Through the limbic system the brain can sense danger. In the presence of a threat, our brain becomes ready to fight, but in the case of a breakup the brain concludes that it’s been rejected. What happens instead is a physiological response to said rejection. When you go through a breakup, your serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine levels lower because you were used to the amount of these chemicals that particular person supplied you with, but due to their absence, you now have less of these. You were dependable on this person, you were happy, and it was easy, but now you aren’t. What if I said there was a simple way you could fix this? There’s a medicine, acetaminophen, that reduces physical and neural responses linked with rejection. So, if you have a headache or heartache (potato, potato) , take a Tylenol!

I always carry a Tylenol pack in my backpack because it works for everything, if I have a migraine, if I hurt myself in practice or if I have a fever. Now, I will make sure to carry two packs to give to my friends when they experience a breakup.

All of this information is important because it helps you develop emotional intelligence, or the ability to understand and manage your emotions. If you know why you’re feeling a certain way, you might try a natural “cure” to improve your mood. For example, if you’re stressed, you should exercise to reestablish serotonin in your brain and be calm. In addition, it will help you realize that you are the one in control of your emotions; that is to say, that if someone tries to bring you down, you already know that they can’t do it, thus, you’ll be able to handle the situation. I find comfort in knowing that there’s a reason we feel the way we do, and that we can shape our moods. Here is a website if you want to learn more about your emotions!

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