Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

Do We Feel With Our Gut?

Where do emotions come from?

Imagine that you see your lover stroll into the room. You think , "The love of my life!" and then feel your palms begin to sweat and your heart begin to race... Or is it the other way around? ... Do you sense your sweaty palms and beating heart first, and then experience feelings of love?

In 1884, the great philosopher and psychologist William James, proposed a radical hypothesis. He wrote "Common sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike." But James speculated that this sequence is actually reversed - our emotional feelings follow instead of cause the reactions of our body. He continued, "we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble." James claimed that our feelings resulted from changes in our body state, from the reactions of our stomach, heart, and other visceral organs.

If this is the case, then our brain must monitor from moment to moment the state of our viscera, and these states must reach consciousness in the form of feelings. In his book, Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio greatly expands on these ideas. We have maps of our limbs and body in our somatosensory and motor cortices that continually inform us of the position and movement of our body. Do we also have brain maps of our viscera which let us know, usually in a subconscious way, how our gut and heart and other visceral organs are doing?

In a recent paper in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists asked this question. They incited strong feelings in their subjects by showing them disturbing videos while, at the same time, monitioring activity in their stomach and heart and imaging their brains. One set of videos evoked feelings of disgust by showing a patient's body cut open during surgical procedures while a second set elicited feelings of disgust by displaying people eating revolting foods. The two sets of videos produced the same intensity of emotion, but the bodily reactions were different. For example, the videos of surgical procedures were more likely to evoke light-headedness and certain changes in heart rate while the ingestion videos were more likely to provoke nausea.

When the investigators imaged the brain, they found that the two sets of videos excited slightly different areas, and these differences correlated well with the variations in bodily reactions and feelings. In particular, different and specific regions of the insular cortex in the front of the brain were activated when watching the two types of videos . These experiments suggest that the brain does monitor from moment-to-moment the changing state of our internal organs.

But we are still left with the chicken-and-egg problem:

Do changes in activity in certain brain regions, such as the insular cortex, produce changes in our visceral organs that then cause us to feel an emotion?

Or do the changes in our viscera happen first and cause changes in our brain and in our feelings?

Or, is there continual feedback, between the body and brain that results in our emotions? Perhaps, this explains why emotions can sometimes spiral out of control. We can work ourselves into a rage or collapse into uncontrollable, pee-in-your-pants bouts of laughter. Isn't this what an effective speaker or actor can make us do?

These insights give us some guidance into controlling our own emotions. "Whistling in the dark" may be more than a lyrical expression; the action of whistling may stem the bodily manifestations and feelings of fear. Similarly, counting to ten and taking deep breathes may alter body states and prevent run-away feelings of panic or anger.

You may find other examples in your own life where James' idea applies. I have a very poor memory for faces. Sometimes, I see someone coming toward me and realize that I don't have a clue as to who they are, yet I have a strong feeling, either positive or negative, about them. If I talk with the person, I learn that I have met him or her before and recall the circumstances of our previous encounters. Even through my cognitive brain didn't initially recognize the person, my emotional brain did. Did the sight of the individual evoke changes in my body state which elicited feelings that were only later correlated with conscious recognition?

When I first learned to see in 3D, early stereo views evoked powerful waves of joy, emotions so strong that they seemed out of proportion to the actual change in my vision. Yet, I have heard now from many other individuals who describe the same intense reaction to first seeing in 3D. Indeed, my first stereo views affected something very basic - the way I experienced space - and such views can still evoke visceral responses such as sweating, butterflies-in-the-stomach, and even feelings of weightlessness. Perhaps, these changes in body state were the source and trigger of the deep joy and wonder I experienced when first seeing the world anew.

 

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

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