The Primary Emotions

When the man succumbs to road rage and yells at his wife over an innocent remark, he is experienc­ing what Goleman dubbed “an emotional hijacking,” in which the amygdala takes over the brain… let’s discuss this.


A man has just endured a lousy day at work capped off by a tongue-lashing from his boss. On the drive home, he swears at another driver who cuts him off. He rubs his temples, feeling the onset of a headache. He knows his wife is going to ask him how his day went and he doesn’t want to tell her the truth, which is that he hates his job.

Sure enough, as he steps into the doorway of his house, his wife asks him how his day went. Not great, he answers. She asks him if he wants to talk about it, remarking that it’s sometimes good to sound off. To him, though, it feels like just another interrogation. Snarl­ing that he wants to be left alone, he stalks off into the TV room and mechanically flips through channels with the remote control.

In the human brain, learning, memory and emotions are housed in the limbic system sur­rounding the brainstem. Within the limbic system, emotional impulses originate in the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure that triggers the physiological reactions associated with emotions. The amygdala is also responsible for imprinting emotions onto memories by releasing some of the same neurochemicals when an event is recalled as when it oc­curred.

A network of neural pathways connect the amygdala to the neocortex, the “thinking brain,” allowing us to reflect on our feelings and to think before acting. In times of perceived crisis, however, those pathways are bypassed and impulse overrides reason. When the man succumbs to road rage and yells at his wife over an innocent remark, he is experienc­ing what Goleman dubbed “an emotional hijacking,” in which the amygdala takes over the brain.

As he listlessly surfs through channels, the man comes across a documentary on weddings. The memory of what a joyful occasion his own wedding was hits him with the force of a blow. No matter how bad his job is, he realizes that he is lucky to have a loving spouse, and that he shouldn’t take their marriage for granted.

Sometimes, emotions and their physiological effects can seem indistinguishable. Intuitive “gut feelings,” or somatic markers, develop simultaneously in the limbic system and the body. These steer us toward one course of action or another, whether it be avoiding dan­ger or seizing opportunity. Arising out of fear and love, a somatic marker tells the man he needs to apologize to his wife before the rift between them widens and jeopardizes their marriage. Deciding he needs to say he’s sorry right away, he goes looking for his wife. After sharing a good cry and making up, they both feel much better – physically as well as emo­tionally.

Each emotion sparks a distinctive physiological reaction, the body’s program for dealing with the different situations that arise in our emotional lives. Happiness cues the brain to suppress worrisome or negative feelings and increases the body’s energy level. Sadness does the opposite, slowing down its metabolism, and manifests itself most visibly in tears. Research has substantiated the age-old theory that crying releases harmful toxins by show­ing that tears of sadness have a different chemical composition than tears of joy or those caused by irritants. Cardiologists have also found that crying can reduce stress and the harmful physiological reactions associated with it.

Anger floods the brain with catecholamines – hormones that prime the body for action – and stimulates the nervous system, putting it on a general state of alert. This explains why someone who is already in a foul mood will remain edgy and more easily aroused to anger than someone who is not.

Continue the Story part 2

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