We are driven by our Emotions

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Whether we like it or not, most our decisions and behavior are driven mostly by emotions and very little by logic. Let us examine the brain infrastructure to understand how emotions override rational thinking.

Whenever we have been flooded with anger or anxiety, overwhelmed by sadness, or torn by hurt, that emotion leaves an imprint in the Amygdala, the emotional part of our brain. Along with each emotional imprint, Amygdala dutifully stores whatever reaction we learned at those moments, whether it was freezing in fear, lashing out in rage or tuning out and going numb. In short, the Amygdala acts as a schema warehouse, the repository for our repertoire of negative emotional habits.

Amygdala is strategically positioned to intercept sensory information streaming in from our eyes, ears, and noses. If that information contains a potential threat, then Amygdala immediately fires off volleys of impulses that can change our behavior even before the signals have been fully processed and interpreted by our neocortex, the thinking part of the brain. That is the reason why your heart starts pounding immediately after noticing the vague shape of two men approaching you on a dark sidewalk. The men may or may not be a threat to you at all, but your Amygdala does not care and is preparing you for the worst.

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That’s where the problem begins. The Amygdala bases its reactions on a fuzzier picture much before the thinking brain gets the more complete input, and it also acts with lightning speed. This must have worked wonderfully well during most of evolution, when there were so many real, physical threats which demanded lightning responses. But in modern life we still respond to symbolic threats with the same intensity and speed as though they were actual physical dangers.

Brain studies show that a highly activated Amygdala, unfortunately, impairs our ability to turn off our negative thoughts and emotions. So, if we have already been upset by something, and then a bit later another emotional trigger gets launched, we find it even more difficult to control Amygdala from going out of control.

Tellingly, a hot Amygdala floods the body with high levels of cortisol, the hormone released by the brain to marshal the body’s emergency responses. Cortisol again makes the whole situation worse. The Orbital Medial Prefrontal Cortex (OMPFC), the thinking part of the brain, becomes inhibited thus making it difficult to be rational, logical and in control of our thoughts.

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When Amygdala gets triggered, it floods the body with the stress hormones that prepare it for emergency. These hormones are of two kinds: one variety provides the body with a quick, intense shot of energy – enough, say, for one vigorous round of fighting or running, the ancient survival responses that, in evolution, paid off. Another kind is secreted more gradually into the body, heightening its overall sensitivity to events, making us hyper alert to any coming danger.

Understanding this emotion-triggering process can help you adopt some damage control initiatives. The moment you realize that you are angry or upset, try to calm down and try to avoid confrontations of any type. Remember that your thinking part of the brain is inhibited. Similarly, when you realize that the other person with whom you are having an argument is emotionally upset, try to avoid any contentious issues. It does not make sense to bring some logical reasoning into the discussions as the other person’s thinking part of the brain is not in control. The best approach is to postpone further interactions till tempers cool down.

This is important, as not following this approach can escalate the bad situation into a worse situation which can damage relationships. This is simply because the anger keeps building up and up as you or the other person thinks more and more about the upsetting cause. What may start as a small emotive issue can build up to an explosive situation where potentially damaging statements may be made.


Feelings like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust don’t just help us survive in the world, they also help us thrive, providing key information that motivates us to take important actions and decisions, and to connect with other people.

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Let me illustrate with some examples how emotional attachments make you highly biased and compels you to override other rational arguments.

You are driving on a mountain road and some of your family members are in different car. Suddenly you witness an accident involving the car carrying your family members and a large bus. You quickly realize that while the occupants of the car are your close family members the occupants of the bus are people whom you may have never met. A quick assessment of the situation shows that both the car and the bus are precariously hanging on the edge of the mountain. You have time to save only one of the vehicles by quickly pulling it with the crane of your car. Which one would you save?

According to traditional economics thinking, you should maximize the utility of your actions, so you should save as many people as possible. Your rational choice should thus be to save the large bus. However, according to the behavioral research, your decision will be biased by emotions and you will certainly save the member of your family. It would appear very natural for most if not all of us to try our best to save someone we love and the psychological consequences of not doing so would be devastating for us. Thus emotions play an essential role in our decision making. However, according to the common interpretation of rational thinking and decision making, your decision has been biased.

Let’s look at a less tragic example. Imagine that tomorrow is your wife’s birthday. You are aware that things have not been working well lately. Long hours of working by both of you has not helped and you have had a couple of arguments. You know that she would love to have this ring you saw together a month ago in a jewelry shop and you decide to buy the ring. However, when you arrive at the jewelry shop you realize that the price tag is more than you expected and you had already planned for a couple of items of expenditure. In addition, you are told by the sale person that the item will be sold at 50 % discount next week. Would you buy the ring today or wait until next week?

Once again, according to traditional economics you should maximize your utility and wait until next week. But taking into consideration the general situation and according to behavioral research predictions, you will probably buy the item today and surprise your wife. After all, making the people you love happy and get on well with them is more satisfying than saving some money. We face once again the same questions: has your decision been emotionally biased and are you acting irrationally?


We can now detect if you are lying with authenticity

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For many years now “Lie Detection Tests” have been in use though without full authenticity.The parameters that were used were physiological reactions such as heart rate, blood pressure, pupil dilation and skin sweat response to direct questions, such as “did you kill your wife?”

With advances inbrain scanning technologies and better understanding of the working of the brain, we are much closer to establishing if a person is lying or speaking the truth.The recent Neuroscience News edition of 06 August 2017 talks about the latest research in this area where a new technique may become almost be acceptable by courts as providing evidence of lying.


In this technique, electrical signals within the brain are scanned through the scalp by electroencephalography (EEG). These signals indicate brain responses known as the P300 signals to questions or visual stimuli. Theseresponse signals are assessed for signs that the individual recognises certain pieces of information or not. The process includes asking some questions that are neutral in content and are used as controls, while other questions probe for knowledge or awareness of facts related to the offence.

The P300 response typically occurs very fast within 300 to 800 milliseconds after the question or other stimulus. This fast response by brain indicates awareness or otherwise of the event and is compared to what the subject claims. If there is a discrepancy, it is clear that he is lying or concealing the fact. If the questions can be made sufficiently narrow to focus on knowledge that only the perpetrator of the crime could possess, then the test can accurately reveal if the subject is concealing knowledge of critical information.

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These reasons for hiding knowledge may have nothing to do with the crime. You could have knowledge relevant to a crime but be totally innocent of that crime. We need to look at the test as revealing knowledge or lack of knowledge of an event and not necessarily of guilt.

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The need to question and alter our perceptions

All of us without exception are driven by our perceptions while making our decisions and wrong perceptions therefore can have far reaching effects.

Let us first see what perception is. Perception is the process of acquiring, interpreting, selecting, and organizing sensory information to attain awareness. It requires both cognitive or thinking part and affective or the emotional part of the brain in addition to the various organs of the body to effectively interact and understand the external world. The other dimension of perception is that what someone perceives is a result of interplay between the perceiver, the situation, and the perceived. Hence, perception is not a passive reaction to events or circumstances but in fact, an active and pervasive process where the structure and function of the sense organs and nervous system play a vital part in making sense of the external world.

This is the reason why different people have differing perceptions of the same event or same environment. This becomes problematical as wrong perceptions which get entrenched as beliefs give raise to conflicts at many levels.  Nations fighting wars, couples fighting over who does more chores, children fighting over a toy are all results of entrenched beliefs. And these conflicts often occur in part because we think that we are right and that the other people, or nations with whom we are disagreeing are wrong. But the truth is that we both are interpreting the situation with our own biased perceptions. The other side has a different perception of how things are, but that does not mean they are wrong.

                                            -ANAIS NIN


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Here is an example of how our interpretation of a situation could be so wrong.

While a woman was waiting for her plane at London Heathrow Airport, she purchased a package of English shortbread cookies. She had a hectic day and the busy schedule did not give her time to eat earlier. Making her way to a seating area, she carefully arranged her luggage and was getting settled when a man approached and indicated by pleasant gesture that he would like to occupy the seat next to her. She nodded and he sat down.

After a few moments, the woman decided to eat some of the cookies she had purchased, and she reached down to get them. As she opened the package, she noticed the man who sat next to her watching with great interest. She took the first cookie and began to eat when, to her great surprise, the man reached over, smiling, and took the second cookie.

The woman ate her cookie in stunned silence, astonished at the audacity of the man. After a moment she determinedly reached for the third cookie, but no sooner had she taken it out of the package than he, again smiling and without a word, reached over and took the fourth. Her indignation continued to rise as back and forth they went in total silence, she taking a cookie and he taking a cookie, until they reached the bottom of the package where the final cookie remained.

Without hesitation, the man reached over and took it, broke it in half, and cheerfully handed her one of the pieces. The woman took her half of the cookie with an icy glare. After finishing his half, the man stood, still smiling. With a polite bow, he turned and walked away.

The woman could not believe that any one could be so arrogant and rude. She was extremely flustered, her stomach churning. Making her way back to the airport gift shop, she picked up a package of antacid. As she opened her purse to get the money to pay for it, she stopped short.

There, in the bag was her unopened package of short bread cookies. Can you even begin to imagine the embarrassment, the chagrin, this woman felt when she discovered her mistake? Think of her attitude and behavior – inappropriate, rude, potentially destructive – especially compared to exemplary behavior exhibited by the stranger, and all stemming from one thing, the way she saw the situation.

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                                                                             -FRANZISKA ISELI

As observers, it is easy for us to laugh at the situation. But if we are the participants in real-life situations in which our own attitudes and behaviors are the result of some unrecognized, incorrect, or incomplete thinking pattern, we may live with the pain, the frustration, the misjudgment, often never making it to that final scene where we discover that the basic assumptions causing the pain were wrong all along.

I believe that most of our interpersonal problems are primarily the result of wrong assumptions and interpretations of what we see and believe and this episode is a good illustration of this.

We need to appreciate that what we think that we are seeing around us, is actually made up by our minds and not necessarily what is actually out there. When we look at an object, our brain constructs a picture of what’s out there based on what it thinks is important for us.

Most people assume that what we see is pretty much what our eyes see and report to our brain. In reality, our brain adds very substantially to the report it gets from our eyes, so that, a lot of what we see is actually “made up” by the brain. Perhaps even more interestingly, the eye actually throws away much of the information it gets, leaving it to the rest of the brain to fill in additional information in its own ways.

A characteristic pattern of connections among neurons in the eyes, termed as “lateral inhibition network”, is responsible for throwing away information. Lateral inhibition helps to explain a number of “optical illusions” and, more importantly, provides an excellent example of how the brain is organized to actively “make sense” of the information it gets, rather than to simply absorb and respond to it. Without this filtering mechanism, with the amount of data that reaches our senses, we could literally become mad trying to respond to all of them.


That brings up an important theme in neuroscience: a central function of the unconscious is to construct a useful reality, and to fill in the blanks in the face of incomplete information. That applies not just to our perception of the physical world, but also to our social perception.

Just as our brains fill in the details of an image our eyes recordedwith partial informationso too our brains fill in details about people we don’t know that intimately. In filling in the unknown details about people, our unconscious mind employs parameters such as voice, looks, dress, body language, andat times wishful thinking. More unfortunately, ourprior beliefs based on ethnic stereotypesalso play a significant part in this reconstructionof the individual. And we normally accept these impressions as realwithout realizing the extent to which they are the guesses of our unconscious mind. We are also not aware of factors our unconscious mind employed to make those guesses or impressions.

Timothy Verstynen of Carnegie Mellon University says that as much as 90 percent of our perception is actually mental fabrication. According to him as we start walking about in the world, seeing, touching and hearing, our brain starts learning from theseexperiences and builds models to help us to interact rightly with people and the environment. He says”That’s a much more efficient way to get around in the world than to try to process every single bit of sensory data that your senses collect,”


The problem is that this fast and quick assessment by brain based on the past experiences may be faulty at times as illustrated by Alex Korb, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCLAin the following narrative.

“I am driving down a sunny, tree-lined street in Santa Monica. As I make a left turn I notice a blind man standing on the corner with his seeing-eye dog. He wears dark sunglasses and carries a cane.

As I turn past him I see that what I thought was a cane is actually a pooper-scooper! It amazes me that a blind man is capable of cleaning up after his dog. I guess in absence of vision the brain develops a greater sensitivity to localizing smells. I chastise myself for assuming that blind people are more disabled than they actually are. Then I notice the dog is on a regular leash rather than a sturdier seeing-eye dog leash, and I can’t understand how that could possibly provide enough tactile guidance to the blind man. I figure he’s been blind a while and has the hang of it. As I drive away I glance in the rear-view mirror and see the blind man turn his head both ways before crossing the street. Finally, it dawns on me that the man is not actually blind, he is just a normally-sighted guy wearing sunglasses, carrying a pooper-scooper and taking his dog for a walk.

This misperception illustrates a key feature of the brain: it gets the gist of what’s going on and makes up the rest. To avoid the hard work of processing every detail about the world, the brain just captures a few key ones and fills in a whole perception. That filled in perception is what you actually experience, and it’s based largely on your past experiences. Every other time I had seen a guy with dark sunglasses, a dog, and what looked like a cane, he had been blind (though I wouldn’t really know if that’s true because I could have failed to catch a few mistaken perceptions). Therefore it becomes easier on the brain to just jump to that conclusion.”

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In this illusion by Richard Russell, the same face appears to be female when the skin tone is made lighter (left image) and male when the skin tone is made darker (right image).The illusion works because changing the skin tone affects the face’s contrast – the difference between the darkest parts of the face (lips and eyes) and lightest parts (the skin).Few would regard facial contrast as a defining feature of either sex, but in fact, contrast is on average higher in females than males.