“We are not thinking machines with feelings – we are feeling machines that think,” said neurophysiologist Antonio Damasio. However, sometimes it’s not easy for us to experience our own emotions and tolerate those of others. Psychiatrist Anders Hansen, author of the book “Why I Feel Bad When Everything Is Good” (MIF publishing house, 2023), explains how emotions arise within us and why we need them.
Imagine you’re rushing home from work. It’s dark and rainy outside, but you don’t have time to think about November weather. You have two hours left to finish some tasks, and you need to finish them today, as well as pick up your daughter from the kindergarten, go to the store, and do the laundry. Damn, the dryer seems to have broken down.
As you approach the road, your thoughts are wandering somewhere far away, and suddenly an invisible hand pushes you back. A bus passes by, and you freeze on the edge of the sidewalk, 20 centimeters away from certain death. Phew… The people around you haven’t noticed what happened, but for you, the world seems to have stopped. Raindrops mix with sweat, your heart is pounding, and you realize that you were on the brink of death. Everything could have ended. But fortunately, something took control, pulling you away from thoughts about deadlines, laundry, and a trip to the supermarket. Something ordered you to take a step back.
The invisible saving hand sits deep in the temporal lobe of the brain. It’s actually no larger than an almond and is called the amygdala in medical terminology. Because of its role in many processes and the huge number of connections to other areas of the brain, the amygdala is also called the godfather of the brain. One of the most important tasks of the amygdala is to scan the surrounding environment for dangers. Visual, auditory, gustatory, and olfactory sensations go directly to the amygdala, which recognizes what you see, hear, feel, and taste before the rest of the brain receives this information.
Why is the brain designed this way? To allow visual impressions to travel from the eye along the optic nerve to different parts of the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, where you eventually become aware of what you see, one-tenth of a second is required. In a critical situation, fractions of a second can mean the difference between life and death.
If the visual impressions are serious, such as a speeding bus, the amygdala reacts faster than the rest of the brain. It presses the alarm button, you jump back, and stress hormones are produced in the body. In English, this is called a very fitting word “emotion” because the step back involved motion. The subjective experience of fear that you feel when you realize that you were almost hit by a bus is called a “feeling.”
MERGING THE EXTERNAL AND INTERNAL WORLDS
When we think about how the brain reacts to external events, we tend to imagine the physical world, such as when a bus is approaching. However, there is another world that is just as important, which the brain closely observes – the internal world.
Deep in the temporal lobes lies one of the most remarkable parts of the brain – the insular cortex. It serves as a coordination center and gathers information from organs and systems, such as heart rate, blood pressure, sugar levels, and breathing rate. The insular cortex also receives information from sensory organs – thus, the external and internal worlds merge within it. From this, emotions arise!
Emotions are not a reaction to what is happening. They are created by the brain, combining what is happening outside with what is happening inside us. Based on this, the brain tries to make us behave in ways that help us survive. Essentially, emotions have only one purpose – to influence our behavior in a way that helps us survive and pass on our genes.
Every second, the eyes transmit to the brain at least 10 million units of information. Through the eyes, like through a thick super-optical cable, visual impressions continuously flow into the brain. And a few more of these thick cables send signals from hearing, tactile sensations, taste, and smell. In addition, there are data from the organs.
The information literally floods your brain, and it is endowed with an almost incomprehensible ability to process it. However, there is a bottleneck: attention. You can only focus on one object, keep one general thought in your head. That is why the brain does almost all the work without your knowledge and prepares a summary in the form of a feeling.
Attention – as a manager of a large company, if employees bring him a report in the form of fifteen folders of documentation, he will probably say, “I don’t have time to go through all of this, make a summary on half a page, and I will make a decision.” Feelings are a summary that exists to guide our behavior.
YOUR BRAIN LOOKS DIFFERENT FROM MINE
People differ not only in faces and figures but also in the brain, particularly in the size of the insular cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for signals coming from the body. It transforms them into feelings, and some researchers believe that the size of the cortex affects the intensity of signal perception. Some of us have the volume knob for body signals turned up to maximum, resulting in very unpleasant feelings from bloating, increased heart rate, or back pain. Others have this volume knob turned down to minimum, and they hardly notice such signals.
Interesting research is currently underway to determine the link between the size and activity of the insular cortex and personality traits. It is believed, for example, that neuroticism – how strongly we react to negative experiences – is linked to the activity of the insular cortex. However, do not think that there is a “normal” insular cortex. It does not exist, just as there is no “normal” brain – they should be different for such a herd animal as humans. It is likely that different traits and feelings are crucial for the survival of the species.
FROM THE BANANA TREE TO THE KITCHEN TABLE
The brain creates not only feelings that control behavior and save us from oncoming buses, but also generates feelings at any moment of wakefulness in our lives. Let’s take a less dramatic example than the street story. You have just walked into the kitchen and there is a banana lying on the kitchen table, and you are considering whether or not to eat it. How does the brain make such a simple everyday decision? It evaluates the amount of energy and nutrients in the banana, and then gathers information about the nutrient stores in your body: do they need replenishing and would a banana be the best solution?
Of course, it is incredibly difficult to consciously engage in this evaluation process every time we consider eating something. The brain takes on the work and, by assessing all the factors, provides an answer in the form of feelings: you feel hunger or satiety and eat the banana or refuse it.
When Eva, with whom I began the story, was faced with the choice of whether or not to climb a banana tree, she also weighed all the factors.
How many bananas are on the palm tree? Are they large and ripe enough? Is the nutrient depot filled, or does it desperately need replenishing? Is the tree in good enough shape to climb? Additionally, Eve had to evaluate risk factors: how high the bananas hung, how difficult it would be to climb, and whether there were any predators nearby.
Of course, Eve didn’t reach for paper and pen or open Excel – she did the calculations the same way you would in your kitchen. Her brain did the math and provided an answer in the form of a feeling. With a low risk of injury and attractive fruits, Eve felt a surge of determination and climbed the tree. If the danger was too great, the catch was too small, or the energy depot was full, the answer came in the form of fear or satiety, and she didn’t climb the tree.
Calculations are done in the same way at the kitchen counter and at the tree, but there is one difference. If the calculation in the kitchen is wrong, nothing happens – you don’t eat the banana now, you’ll eat it later. For Eve, such an approach was an unacceptable luxury. With erroneous calculations and reckless actions, Eve repeatedly put herself in danger. With erroneous calculations and excessive caution, Eve would never have taken risks and would have died of hunger.
Only our ancestors who were able to find a balance of feelings – in this case, survival and reproduction – survived and were able to pass on their genes. This continued generation after generation. Thus, feelings are not some vague phenomena that we can easily do without. The brain creates them to guide our behavior, and for millions of years, feelings have undergone the harsh selection of evolution.
The feelings that pushed us towards incorrect behavior – incorrect from the perspective of survival – were removed from the gene pool for the simple reason that their owners quickly dropped out of the game. From a purely biological point of view, emotions are billions of brain cells that exchange biochemical substances and urge us towards behavior that ensures survival and reproduction.
Poetically, emotions are the whispers of thousands of previous generations of our ancestors who, against all odds, survived by avoiding hunger, infectious diseases, and accidents. Essentially, emotions have only one purpose: to influence our behavior in a way that helps us survive and pass on our genes.
WHY HAPPINESS IS NOT PERMANENT
What I described helps us understand why we cannot always feel great. Let’s imagine that Eve decided to climb a tree and picked a few bananas. Satisfied, she sat on the ground and ate, but how long will her satisfaction last? Not for long. If a successful climb up a tree made her happy for several months, the motivation to search for new food would disappear, and soon Eve would die of hunger.
Therefore, the feeling of well-being must be temporary to accomplish the main task – to motivate us. Of course, we have all experienced this ourselves. We believe that a certain job position, a new car, a raise, or a bathroom remodel will make us happy with life. However, as soon as these desires are fulfilled, the feeling of satisfaction is surprisingly quickly replaced by new desires for an even higher position or salary. And this is an endless process!
Psychological well-being usually tops the list of main life values. However, the feeling of psychological comfort is only one of the tools of evolution.
Moreover, it is useless if the feeling is not transient. Expecting that we will always feel good is as unrealistic as expecting a banana on the kitchen counter to sustain us for the rest of our lives. We are simply wired differently.
If we lift the hood and peek inside the brain, we will understand that not only do our feelings not work the way we thought they did. Research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience has shown that the brain alters memories. It closes its eyes to unpleasant truths to help us stay in the group.
Sometimes it makes us think we are more beautiful and smarter than we really are, and sometimes it makes us feel like we are complete nobodies. The brain does not allow us to see the world as it is. Its task is much more important and specific – to show us the world as we need to see it in order to survive.