The Psychobiology of Destructive Emotions (Part One)

The Psychobiology of Destructive Emotions (Part One)


Emotions become destructive when normal neural systems for essential behavior go to extremes, compelling us to react in inappropriate, harmful ways. To understand why this happens so easily in modern life, we examine first the impact that the role of emotions as a survival mechanism in evolution has had on our neural architecture. The emotional centers developed early in evolution-our thinking brain, the neocortex, literally grew from the emotional centers; our thoughts and emotions are as intimately intertwined as the latticework of circuitry that regulates them. The design of brain integrates multiple networks from various regions that can play different roles at different moments. Some of these networks allow the emotional centers to override rationality in moments of perceived emergency, recruiting areas of the neocortex in what seems an emotional “hijack.” With this perspective from affective neuroscience as background, we can explore the classical Buddhist model of the “Three Poisons”–aggression, craving, and delusion–in terms of the neural processes at work in fear and anger; in ordinary pleasure and addiction; and in the role of emotional bias in cognition. The brain mechanisms by which negative emotions are regulated–amplified and attenuated–help to distinguish normal expression of these emotions from their destructive extremes. The trigger for turning them on involves circuits running from cortical sensory and perceptual processing zones to subcortical limbic structures including the amygdala. Anatomical data suggest that direct pathways exist between sensory regions of the thalamus and the amygdala, permitting the activation and learning of emotional responses in the relative absence of awareness. A circuit that includes inhibitory pathways from regions of the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala provides a mechanism by which activation of the amygdala, and negative affect, might be regulated. When this process fails, emotions may spiral out-of-control, becoming destructive. Circuits converging on the hippocampus determine whether an emotional reaction is appropriate; the over-generalized fearfulness in post-traumatic stress disorder likely emerges from trauma-induced abnormalities in the hippocampus and amygdala. Craving appears to arise from the pleasure-inducing dopamine system, which spurs us toward our goals in life and makes us feel satisfied when we attain them. But the repeated over-activation of this system in addictions produces structural alterations, which decreases the normal capacity to activate pleasure. This in turn fuels addictive behavior as people seek to re-experience the pleasure. Finally, emotions can bias cognition through the neural architecture connecting structures that generate the emotions to those brain systems involved in perception and attention. We can identify the neural mechanisms by which sustained emotional habits (e.g. the hypervigilance to threat common after trauma) result in an enduring sensory and perceptual bias, and thus to “delusion”.

  • Dialogue 8
    11 sessions
  • March 22, 2000
    Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India
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Richard Davidson

Richard J. Davidson, PhD, is the founder and chairman of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, and the director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, both at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He was educated at New York University and Harvard University, where he received his bachelor’s of arts and PhD degrees, respectively, in psychology. Over the course of his research career, he has focused on the relationship between brain and emotion. He is currently the William James professor and Vilas research professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin. He is co-author or editor of 13 books, including Visions of Compassion: Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature, The Handbook of Affective Science, and The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Davidson has published more than 300 chapters and journal articles, and is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards for his work, including the Research Scientist Award from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has served on the board of directors for the Mind & Life Institute since 1992. In 2006, Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and he received the first Mani Bhaumik Award from UCLA for advances in the understanding of the role of the brain and the conscious mind in healing.