How Does Your Brain Process Emotions?

As research becomes more advanced and as individuals are increasingly seen as part of a greater context, psychotherapy incorporates this new knowledge to improve the understanding of how the mind and emotions function. Studying the neurobiology of the brain is, therefore, providing additional avenues for further research as well as allowing current therapeutic techniques a period in which they can be refined to suit the client more.

One example to illustrate the above is how research over the last decade has shown that loneliness is an important determinant of health. It is associated with considerable physical and mental health risks and may even increase mortality. Previous studies have also shown that wisdom could serve as a protective factor against loneliness. This inverse relationship between loneliness and wisdom may be based on different brain processes.

In a study, it has been found that specific regions of the brain respond to emotional stimuli related to loneliness and wisdom in opposite ways. They found that when faces displaying anger were presented as distracters to people, the angry expression significantly slowed simple cognitive responses in lonelier individuals. This meant that lonelier individuals paid more attention to threatening stimuli, such as angry faces. As for wisdom, they found a significant positive relationship for response speed when faces with happy emotions were shown. This was more noticeable in individuals who displayed wiser traits such as empathy. These individuals had quicker cognitive responses in the presence of happy stimuli.

Electroencephalogram (EEG)-based brain recordings showed that the part of the brain called the temporal-parietal junction (TPJ) was activating differently in lonelier versus wiser individuals. The TPJ is important for cognitive processing or for the capacity to show empathy and understanding of others. The study found that TPJ was more active when angry emotions were presented to lonelier people and more active when happy emotions were presented to wiser people.

Researchers also noted greater brain activity to threatening stimuli for lonelier individuals in their left superior parietal cortex, the brain region important for allocating attention. On the other hand, wisdom was significantly related to enhancing happy emotion-driven activity in the left insula of the brain, which is responsible for social characteristics like empathy.

This study suggests that the inverse relationship between loneliness and wisdom found in previous clinical studies is partly embedded in neurobiology and not merely a result of subjective biases. These findings are relevant to the mental and physical health of individuals because they give an objective neurobiological understanding of how lonelier or empathic people process information. Having a biological marker that can be measured in the brain can help develop effective therapeutic treatments.