The Feeling Brain/ Johnston & Olsen
Source: The Feeling Brain/ Johnston & Olsen

Recently, Norton publishing sent me a new book to review, seeking my reaction as a neuropsychologist and trauma therapist with thirty-eight years of experience. The book is The Feeling Brain: The Biology and Psychology of Emotions, by Elizabeth Johnston and Leah Olson.

I found The Feeling Brain to be a very well researched, in-depth yet concise book for neuroscientists, neuropsychologists and psychologists interested in knowing more about the neuroanatomy of emotions. It would also be of interest to anyone looking for detailed information on the dynamics and understanding of emotions, cognition and neural integration.

Neuroanatomy — The Feeling Brain

The Feeling Brain goes into detail about the history of emotions and their neuroanatomy in relationship to your thoughts, memory and the body/brain interaction. When someone asks, “How do you feel?” the reflection you have of yourself in relationship to that question is complex. This reflection of self is at once aware of your feelings, grounded in the corporeal body, and emotional. Our sense of self is a product of an integration of emotions connected together in a network, and a neural mapping of information. 

Anxiety – The Feeling Brain

When a person says, “I’m anxious,” the feeling of anxiety itself is often the perceived cause. But anxiety is actually a reactive symptom, not the cause at all. Anxiety is located in the limbic system in the brain. This area, specifically the amygdala, acts as a sensor that sends signals to our adrenal glands when triggered, giving us the adrenaline to fight or flee. The Feeling Brain does an excellent job of explaining the difference between anxiety and fear: “Fear is a response to a specific stimulus and recedes quickly once that stimulus is no longer present. Anxiety does not require a triggering stimulus; it’s the anticipation of a threat that is feared, and so anxiety can result in becoming chronically vigilant for potential threats.” The Feeling Brain explains that if you are not soothed as a child, memories and emotions can become embedded and relived later. This can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Feeling Brain – Inside Out for Therapists and Doctors?

Trying to understand these concepts can be overwhelming if you are not trained in neuroanatomy. To help you understand how and why you feel the way you do, Disney/Pixar released a wonderful movie addressing the concept of feelings and emotions within the brain in a fun and informative way: Inside Out.  

When I told The Feeling Brain coauthor Dr. Elizabeth Jonhston that I intended to parallel her book with the movie Inside Out, she was delighted. She agreed that Inside Out takes the technical detail presented in The Feeling Brain and translates it into easily digestible lay terms.

Inside Out takes various feelings, such as Disgust, Anger, Sadness, and Joy, and turns them into individual characters. These characters work together to man a control room in the main character’s brain. This concept has more to do with science than you might think. Below are images from fMRI studies that use statistical techniques to identify unique neural signatures for emotions, such as sadness, fear, anger, and joy that are distributed across wide-ranging brain networks:

The Secret Life of the Brain by Richard Restak, M.D.
Red hues indicate areas of increased activity; purple hues indicate regions of decreased activity.
Source: The Secret Life of the Brain by Richard Restak, M.D.

In Inside Out, the feelings-characters work together and separately to create the changing emotions the main character feels throughout the day. The authors of The Feeling Brain detail with precision the way that your senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, plus your intuitive sixth sense) work together to do this. This integration is very important. If this integration fails to happen because of chemical imbalance, genetics, developmental trauma, brain injury, or other types of trauma, various symptoms can occur, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, aggression and rage.

And The Feeling Brain details how and why these feelings and resulting memories occur. The Feeling Brain details how and why these feelings and resulting memories occur.

The Feeling Brain also explores the subject of moods, and the way in which our environment and genetics affect the integration of our feelings. This can be observed in the fluctuating moods we each have throughout the day, and in the way in which our memories of the past are always informed by our present. Inside Out illustrates this clearly when the main character, Riley, recalls her past in Minnesota. The movie does a great job of depicting anger and showing the importance of integrating emotions, reflecting all aspects of our sense of ourselves in time.

If you’d like a fun illustration of how and why your emotions work to inform how you think and behave each day, I would highly recommend seeing Inside Out. And if you’d like an in-depth, scientific explanation, read The Feeling Brain.

If you’re a neuroscientist, neuropsychologist, cognitive scientist or trauma therapist who is interested in an informative read, The Feeling Brain: The Biology and Psychology of Emotions should be on your bookshelf. And Inside Out will give you additional insight from a different perspective.  

For more on Inside Out, NPR did a great interview with writer/director Peter Docter.

And the New York Times did an in-depth review.

There is a Way!™

- Dr. Diane®

Copyright © Diane Roberts Stoler, Ed.D.  July 2015

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