What Emotions Are (and Aren’t)

Fascinating! From the New York Times:

Some scientific studies seem to support that such fingerprints exist. But many of those studies disagree on what the fingerprints are, and a multitude of other studies indicate there are no such fingerprints.

Let’s start with neuroscience. The Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory (which I direct) collectively analyzed brain-imaging studies published from 1990 to 2011 that examined fear, sadness, anger, disgust and happiness. We divided the human brain virtually into tiny cubes, like 3-D pixels, and computed the probability that studies of each emotion found an increase in activation in each cube.
Overall, we found that no brain region was dedicated to any single emotion. We also found that every alleged “emotion” region of the brain increased its activity during nonemotional thoughts and perceptions as well.
The most well-known “emotion” region of the brain is the amygdala, a group of nuclei found deep within the temporal lobes. Since 2009, at least 30 articles in the popular press have claimed that fear is caused by neurons firing in the amygdala. Yet only a quarter of the experiments that we analyzed showed an increase in activity in the amygdala during the experience of fear. Indeed, it has long been known that certain “fear” behaviors, such as fleeing, don’t require the amygdala.
Other evidence against the amygdala-fear relationship comes from a pair of identical twins, known in the scientific literature as “BG” and “AM,” who both have a genetic disease that obliterates the amygdala. BG has difficulty feeling fear in all but the most extreme situations, but AM leads a normal emotional life.
Brain regions like the amygdala are certainly important to emotion, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient for it. In general, the workings of the brain are not one-to-one, whereby a given region has a distinct psychological purpose. Instead, a single brain area like the amygdala participates in many different mental events, and many different brain areas are capable of producing the same outcome. Emotions like fear and anger, my lab has found, are constructed by multipurpose brain networks that work together.
If emotions are not distinct neural entities, perhaps they have a distinct bodily pattern — heart rate, respiration, perspiration, temperature and so on?
Again, the answer is no. My lab analyzed over 200 published studies, covering nearly 22,000 test subjects, and found no consistent and specific fingerprints in the body for any emotion. Instead, the body acts in diverse ways that are tied to the situation. Even a rat facing a threat (say, the odor of a cat) will flee, freeze or fight depending on its surrounding context.
The same goes for the human face. Many scientists assume that the face clearly and reliably broadcasts emotion (scowling in anger, pouting in sadness, widening the eyes in fear, wrinkling the nose in disgust). But a growing body of evidence suggests that this is not the case. When we place electrodes on a human face and actually measure muscle movements during anger, for example, we find that people make a wide variety of movements, not just the stereotypical scowl.
CHARLES DARWIN famously vanquished the notion of essences in biology. He observed that a species is not a single type of being with a fixed set of attributes, but rather a population of richly varied individuals, each of which is better or worse suited to its environment.
Analogously, emotion words like “anger,” “happiness” and “fear” each name a population of diverse biological states that vary depending on the context. When you’re angry with your co-worker, sometimes your heart rate will increase, other times it will decrease and still other times it will stay the same. You might scowl, or you might smile as you plot your revenge. You might shout or be silent. Variation is the norm.
This insight is not just academic. When medical researchers ask, “What is the link between anger and cancer?” as if there is a single thing called “anger” in the body, they are in the grip of this error. When airport security officers are trained on the assumption that facial and body movements are reliable indicators of innermost feelings, taxpayers’ money is wasted.
The ease with which we experience emotions, and the effortlessness with which we see emotions in others, doesn’t mean that each emotion has a distinct pattern in the face, body or brain. Instead of asking where emotions are or what bodily patterns define them, we would do better to abandon such essentialism and ask the more revealing question, “How does the brain construct these incredible experiences?”

Wide Arc Mood Swings

Emotions are a double edged sword for people with bipolar d/o. Our intense emotions allow us to feel deeply, be empathetic, be creative. But these intense emotions can also break us. Things like Empty Nest Syndrome are very difficult to deal with, as our emotions get get very intense and painful and difficult to handle for ourselves. Any kind of emotional upheaval is more difficult when you have a mood disorder. We people who have bipolar 1, 11, or major depressive or anxiety disorders have a more difficult time coping with it. We feel so much more deeply, we really do, I’m not making that up. Whether we are happy or sad, we feel off the charts. Our mood swings are more extreme and have a wider arc than someone who doesn’t have a mood disorder.

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Here’s a figure I made. It’s not exact, just illustrative, the normal mood range is a little past the lines labelled “Normal Depression” and “Normal Euphoria.” The Bipolar mood swings however can go beyond even the “Out of Touch with Reality Depression” and “Out of Touch with Reality Mania“!!! That is some depth and intensity of emotion, that is why when people are in a severe depression, they kill themselves, because the depth, the intensity, the very quantity of their sadness is too painful, too intense to bear.

Just something I wanted to share with people who don’t know what it feels like to have a mood disorder.

Mood stabilizers like Lithium Carbonate, Depakote, Abilify keep us in mostly the normal mood range. They are literally heaven sent for us, people with mood d/o’s. I don’t know if I’d be here without my Lithium Carbonate, I don’t think I would actually. Even with it, I still have been going through some extreme mood situations, but they are somewhat attenuated and more easily reversed than if i wasn’t on Lithium. So even though I have Bipolar Disorder Type 1 (the official name) I feel lucky that I also have Lithium Carbonate. Also, my mood lability was also due, in large part, to Zoloft, which I haven’t taken in 3.5 months, and this will also help stabilize my mood. Yaay! Coming off Zoloft has been anything but easy. But that’s a subject for another post.

Best wishes and hugs to you my dear friends.

NO to suicide!

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Strange, I was going to write about suicide and all day I have been seeing references to it, either written, or on TV, or on a billboard. Must be very attuned to it, I suppose, like when you are pregnant, you see pregnant women everywhere. Sorry guys, let me find an example that you with the Y chromosome can also relate to: like when you are thinking about the next football game, and you see cheer leaders everywhere, is that good?

Anyway, this is an appeal to anyone out there who is thinking of suicide. Please don’t. You are embroiled in emotions, or have taken this decision based on emotions. Emotions change. You don’t have to do this. Your frame of mind will change and you will not think about this anymore. Reach out to someone, anyone, a hotline, a friend, a stranger. Anyone at all. Please don’t do it. When people who attempted suicide, but either were unsuccessful, or were saved, they ALL said that they were happy they were still here. Not one of them said any different. So please, write to me, call someone, check yourself into a hospital (stigma be damned), but don’t do it. Don’t even attempt it.

You have this thing called life to live. Right now, it may see, may even be intolerably sad, horrible, whatever, but things change. Moods change, especially in people who have mood disorders. What is unbearable now may become something from which you springboard into being ok or happy, or normal and strong, or who knows, jubilant. Feelings change, emotions change. Dead doesn’t change. So don’t do it. Sit tight, call for help and begin another day.

If you think of your loved ones, if you still have that capacity, you know they will never get over losing you. It will be an unbearably sad event for them, for your children. For goodness’ sake, don’t take that step. Respect life, I know that’s not what people mean when they say that, but I mean it. Respect your own life and live it. It will get better.

Love and hugs and may you have peace of mind and peace in your soul.

A little boy on a plane.


I saw a family on the plane from Nantucket to JFK, yesterday. It was a young mom and dad, in their thirties, with a baby girl and a 5 or so year old son. Our plane was late, and the couple was very upset they were going to miss their connection to Cincinnati. They tried to speak to the flight attendant to get them to hold the plane for them, but no dice. The mom was holding the baby girl, who was all smiles and coos. The little boy however was very upset because he “wanted his mama!” The dad kept deriding the boy for crying and being a ninny. He told the boy, who was sobbing, to stop making things hard for all of them. And the boy literally implored him, saying “Please don’t say that.” The mother was just ignoring this little boy and the father was being extremely negative and angry with him. And the little boy just kept saying “But I want my mama!” It was plain for me to see that he was in emotional distress, for whatever reason. His parents were doing nothing to help him, in fact their actions were hurting him more. They were annoyed at the possibility of missing their flight and had no time to address this little boy’s emotional needs. I just wanted to say “Mom, hand the baby to your husband, and comfort your son.” That’s all it would have taken. Instead, they did nothing, and the little boy cried heart rendingly. It was hard for me to listen to him. Is this the way mood disorders begin, by needs that are unmet and perhaps, repeatedly remain unmet? Was this little boy simply more sensitive, his genetic makeup, and simply felt things at a much greater depth than the rest of his family? I know that sensitivity is a key feature of mood disorders. Also, his parents inability to soothe his upset mood, does this then lead to the inability to self soothe for the little boy, leading to anxiety and possibly even depression in the future? Just something I saw that upset me a lot. It just wasn’t right for the parents to ignore this beautiful, little boy’s pleas. It also made me think of how much parents affect our life, how empathy and love would make any situation you find yourself in better. Especially empathy and love from your parents when you are little and need them to have a healthy, happy life. 

Also, it made me think of how these kinds of traumatic events affect the grown up men into which these little boys grow up. 

And what is the relationship of these types of things to people developing mood disorders.