Richard G. Petty, MD

The Seat of the Emotions and the Gateway to Reason

“If passion drives, let reason hold the reins.”
–Benjamin Franklin (American Author, Inventor and Diplomat, 1706-1790)

For many centuries reason and emotion have usually been held to be two poles of a magnet, the North and South of the psyche. Every now and then someone has proposed some other psychological lodestone, but most have finally devolved into this simple binary model.

Yet a moment’s introspection shows us that reason and emotion are inextricably linked. We know from people with alexithymia and a dizzying array of “personality disorders,” that a real-life Mr. Spock would be a hobbled creature. Yet we also know that simple binary models of pleasure and pain as the drivers or behavior are over simplified. It appears that one of the great attainments of many mammalian species – and who knows how many others – is an ability to be moved by more complex considerations of loyalty, propriety and even morality.

There is an important study in this month’s issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. The amygdala is a central processing station in the brain for emotions and is involved in laying down emotional memories. A shock or extreme pleasure may both leave their traces in the amygdala, so it plays a key role in survival.

But this new research shows that the amygdala also plays a role in working memory, a higher cognitive function that is critical for reasoning and problem solving. If you ask someone for a telephone number and you instantly dial the number and then forget it, that is working memory in action. If you choose to remember the number for later, it moves out of working memory into longer term memory stores. In some senses working “memory” is a little bit of a misnomer: it is a function that enables us to manipulate information extremely rapidly.

In two different functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies with a total of 74 participants, individual differences in amygdala activity predicted behavioral performance on a working memory task. The experimental subjects were asked to look either at words, such as rooster, elbow, and steel, or faces of attractive men and women. Then they were asked to indicate whether or not the current word or image matched the one they saw three frames earlier. Try it for yourself, and you will see that this is quite challenging. The subjects’ brains were scanned while completing the tasks.

People with stronger amygdala responses during the working memory task also had faster response times.

This is exceptionally important for anyone interested in thinking and learning: it shows that a region of the brain thought to be involved primarily, or perhaps even exclusively, in processing emotions is also involved in higher cognition, even when there is no emotional content.

I think it most likely that the amygdala may be involved in vigilance, perhaps preparing people to better cope with challenging situations and also improving their ability to sort information according to its relevance to the current situation. This is something that people with poor resilience find hard to do, so it may be that the amygdala is involved in developing and maintaining resilience.

This study helps to prove the total inter-relatedness of emotion and cognition and supports learning strategies that are based upon integrating emotion with facts. One of the ways in which health care students are able to remember enormous numbers of facts is by attaching them to patients with whom they have worked. Emotion, interest and empathy can dramatically accelerate learning.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.


One Response to “The Seat of the Emotions and the Gateway to Reason”
  1. Reg Adkins says:

    My comment relates to emotion only in-so-much as I am interested in how sensory strategies impact behavior and emotion. In fact I’ve written a post on that topic and as I respect your work, I would be delighted if you would look at it and comment.
    Thank you,
    Reg Adkins

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

logo logo logo logo logo logo