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How do the brain's amygdala and cortex control your emotions?

Dr. Michael Roizen, MD
Internal Medicine

The biology of mental problems involves your neurological gatekeeper - the part of the brain called the amygdala. Almond shaped, the amygdala takes all of the information from the part of your brain called the thalamus relay station and pushes it to the cortex - the part of the brain that helps you make decisions, like running out of a burning building. It's the amygdala that assigns meaning to that smoke alarm - so that you actually jump when you hear it. How? The amygdala assigns emotion, so that the alarm isn't just some buzzer from some appliance attached to the ceiling. That buzzing and beeping means your little derriere might be best off bolting out the front door. And here is where the beautiful biology shines through. The amygdala recognizes that there might be an emergency; the cortex decides what to do about it. So in essence, your amygdala establishes what science-heads to call "salience" - that is, it chooses which stimuli or pieces of info to prioritize.
If the amygdala is the emotional part of the brain, the cortex is the rational part. The amygdala controls fear and anxiety, which are at the root of most emotional disorders. While the amygdala can send lots of messages to the cortex, the cortex can't do much in return; In fact, in adults, the amygdala has ten times more neurons headed towards the cortex than it receives. So we can't will ourselves to be calm just because we want to. Right? We can't will ourselves out of depression, we can't will ourselves not to wash our hands 300 times a day if that's what we feel, and we can't will ourselves away from a powerful addiction. But what we can do is understand a little more about how these emotional disorders work, and learn ways to flip the switch so that you can reduce your fear and anxiety.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.