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Unraveling the Biology of Emotions

There’s a lot of discussion about love, happiness and contentment on university campuses, but much of it is coming from academic researchers in their labs, not romantically inclined college students on the lawns.

More importanty, much of this scientific research is increasingly focused on how emotional states affect human health and well-being.

Equivalent to Discoveries in Particle Physics

The HealthEmotions Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of five centers nationwide receiving federal support for unraveling the mind-body connection. Researchers in Madison are particularly focused on determining the biological basis of human emotional response, which could shed light on how specific emotions affect states of wellness and disease.

Ned Kalin, M.D., chair and Hedberg professor of psychiatry and director of the Institute, explained, “We know that emotions are more than just a feeling state — that they are whole-body states that activate hormonal responses, the cardiovascular system and other systemic reactions. What we are trying to determine is how these emotions originate biologically and how they influence an individual’s subsequent health status.”

The first issue of the Institute’s HealthEmotions newsletter published in 2000 noted, “Understanding how the brain experiences emotion and how positive states of mind influence the body is part of the next great frontier in the brain sciences. It is the life science equivalent of discovering the fundamental particles that constitute the building blocks of matter in physics.”

Emotions: Not a Heart Condition

Jack Thompson, Ph.D., professor in the department of psychology and psychobiology at Centre College, Danville, Ky., and author of Psychobiology of Emotions, pointed out that humans have taken the long route in pursuit of an anatomically and physiologically accurate explanation for their emotions. He pointed to the long era of misinformation that preceded modern knowledge.

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“Egyptian physicians believed the heart was the site of consciousness,” he said. “They had no concept that the brain was associated with feeling, thinking or other functions. For them, brains were for eating. It wasn’t until the Greco-Roman period that the notion of the brain’s connection with thought and feeling was introduced, but even then, the idea that the heart was the seat of passionate emotions persisted.”

The Egyptian view might seem primitive in light of today’s storehouse of information about mental functioning, but remnants of the old thinking hang on in the idioms, metaphors, songs and celebrations of our own time that link the heart with a host of complex human emotions, especially love.

“The neurobiology of love has been a difficult topic to approach,” Thompson conceded. “No one has yet been able to tackle and fully explain it.”

Unraveling the Biology of Emotions

Holly VanScoy, Ph.D

APA Reference
VanScoy, H. (2020). Unraveling the Biology of Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 29 Jul 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 29 Jul 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.