In this post we are going to answer the question ‘’What part of the brain controls sadness?’’ We will explain how the brain interprets sadness, we will analyze some studies on human sadness and the effects of depression on the brain.
What part of the brain controls sadness?
The part of the brain that controls sadness is the occipital lobe. Sadness is associated with increased activity of the right occipital lobe, the left insula, the left thalamus the amygdala and the hippocampus.
The brain controls our emotions. Yes, no matter how many hearts we draw when we are in love or when we feel that our heart can break out of sadness, this is not the organ that handles our emotions.
It is true that brain and heart are related, since the heart beats at a different rate depending on the emotions that our body feels, but it is the brain that is in control. And not the whole brain, but a very specific part: the limbic system.
The term ‘limbic’ was coined in 1878 by the French physician and scientist Paul Broca, to designate an area composed of three structures whose function is related to learning, memory, and emotional responses. It is located just below the cerebral cortex and is made up of the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus.
The limbic system is the area of the brain that directs our emotions and our most primitive sensations: those related to survival (such as fear and anger) and with human sensations around our sexual behavior. In fact, many scientists have come to call it the ‘reptilian brain’ since it takes care of our most basic instincts.
It is one of the oldest parts of our brain. It is more than two million years old and is still capable of controlling certain behaviors and sensations that today seem very rational to us: courtship, looking for a partner to marry, looking for other human beings to direct us or looking for a house.
The amygdala, our emotional defense
It is the most important structure within the limbic system. It is the one that keeps and manages our most irrational emotions. It is this part of the brain in which the ‘defense’ is generated against the worst feelings that human beings have: fear, anger, sadness, etc.
It is responsible for regulating these sensations and protecting us against them. Thanks to the amygdala we can escape situations that put our survival at risk; But it also has a bad part: it is what allows our deepest fears and childhood traumas to come to light.
The amygdala helps us find the necessary strategy to solve a situation of stress, fear or danger and gives us a balanced vision of what is happening around us. In short, it is the part of the brain that allows us not to get carried away by panic and anxiety.
This is what sadness looks like in the brain, according to science
Virginia Wolf said that “nothing thicker than a blade separates happiness from melancholy” and yet the second has been less explored than the first by neuroscience. There are various hormones responsible for pleasure and motivation -such as dopamine-, improving mood -such as serotonin- and producing a feeling of happiness, thanks to endorphins.
About sadness, the scientific perspective did not have as much information, although it was known that a region of the brain called the amygdala played a fundamental role in it. However, until recently, brain scans weren’t fast enough to detect what was happening during moment-to-moment fluctuations in emotional state.
A group of scientists from the University of California, in the United States (USA) revealed how sadness manifests itself in the human brain.
To do this, the researchers worked with 21 people, concluding that in the vast majority of them, the feeling of sadness was associated with greater communication between the areas of the brain involved in emotion and memory.
Previous studies found that both sadness and other emotions involved the amygdala, a set of nuclei of neurons. Also, the hippocampus, which is associated with memory, could play a role in emotions.
The study of human sadness
The people who participated in the study were hospital patients awaiting brain surgery for severe epilepsy. Before the medical intervention, a series of wires were inserted inside their heads that recorded their electrical activities over a period of seven days.
After the week, the scientists were able to observe that certain mood states coincided with the internal communication of specific networks located in the brain, noting that in 13 of the patients there was a link between sadness and a particular neural circuit that connects the amygdala that, in turn, is related to emotional fluctuations and the hippocampus, which helps store memories.
“There was a network that over and over again told us if they were happy or sad,” said Vikaas Sohal, a psychiatric academic at the University of California.
Benefits against depression
The research also provided a detailed map of how the human brain behaves in the face of emotions, allowing science to advance in the field of treatments for patients with mood disorders and depression.
“As a psychiatrist, it is incredibly powerful to be able to tell patients, ‘I know something is going on in your brain when you feel depressed,'” said Sohal.
Sadness in the human being
Sadness and depression bring with them illnesses and disorders, such as the alteration of the processing of emotions, causing neutral facts to be mentally interpreted as negative.
Likewise, the brain consumes a greater amount of glucose and oxygen, producing states of physical exhaustion. In addition, the number of receptors that perceive the sweet taste is reduced, creating the need to consume products that satisfy it.
Experts say that to get out of states of sadness and depression requires self determination. To help this, they recommend improving the diet with healthy products, doing sports to stimulate the generation of endorphins -the so-called happiness hormone-, doing social activities and sharing with loved ones.
What happens in our brain when we are depressed?
Depression is a mood disorder that affects at least 300 million people in the world. According to the World Health Organization, it is a disorder that has increased in prevalence by at least 18% during the last decade. For some, it is a growing epidemic.
It is a disorder that is characterized by deep sadness, low spirits, low self-esteem, loss of interest in everything and a decrease in mental functions.
It is also characterized by a continued dejection, in which feelings of disinterest, sadness and melancholy prevail.
Depression has both physical and psychological causes. One of the most interesting aspects is that in recent years it has been discovered that this disease causes visible changes in the brain. The organ as such undergoes modifications in its structure and operation. These are some of them.
Depression reduces white matter in the brain
A group of researchers from the University of Edinburgh, in the United Kingdom, conducted a study that was later published in Scientific Reports. The experts concluded that the white matter of the brain decreases in people who have depression.
The scientists used a group of 3,461 adults as their basis. Some of them had symptoms of depression, others had been diagnosed with that disease and some more had a stable mood. They all had MRI scans.
The results showed that people who were depressed, or with symptoms of depression, had less white matter in the brain. This is in charge of coordinating communication between the different systems of the human body and between the different areas of the brain.
Decreased gray matter
Gray matter, meanwhile, is the area in charge of processing information of all kinds. This includes the processing of emotions. Some studies have shown that gray matter has a decrease in depressed people.
Research published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry followed a group of depressed patients for three years. In the end they concluded that there was a significant reduction in gray matter in these people, in three areas: the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.
The immediate effect of all this is that it causes a kind of emotional disengagement. In other words, the processing of emotions is disturbed. This causes neutral facts to be viewed as negative. Therefore, these changes exacerbate depression.
Imbalance in neurotransmitters
There are many mental disorders that develop due to previous changes in the brain. However, all the available evidence indicates that the opposite occurs in the case of depression. In other words, symptoms appear first and if they persist for a time, they give rise to brain changes.
That said, another of the changes in the brain caused by depression has to do with an imbalance in neurotransmitters. Basically in the levels of serotonin and dopamine. In both cases this leads to changes in the functioning of the brain.
Serotonin is responsible for regulating the activity of the hypothalamus. This, in turn, is in charge of regulating the hunger and sleep cycles. Also physical responses to emotions. If serotonin drops, the hypothalamus increases its activity in an uncontrolled way.
The effect of all this is that the feeding cycles, as well as the sleep cycles, begin to show alterations. You eat too much, or too little. You sleep too much, or too little.
There is less neuron renewal
One of the effects of transformation in the hippocampus, caused by the reduction of gray matter, is a reduced ability to regulate the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. This causes the person to have a lower rate of neuronal renewal.
The consequence of this is that the person has a lower capacity to process the stimuli associated with fear. Therefore, it is usual for fear to arise associated with daily activities, such as leaving the house, talking to other people, etc.
Additionally, memory problems could occur. All these changes make the area responsible for storing memories not working properly. Therefore, the depressed person may have trouble remembering short-term and long-term events.
FAQS: What part of the brain controls sadness?
The limbic system is the area of the brain that directs our emotions and our sensations.
What happens in your brain when you are sad?
Sadness and depression bring with them illnesses and disorders, such as the alteration of the processing of emotions, causing the neutral facts to be mentally interpreted as negative. Likewise, the brain consumes more glucose and oxygen, producing states of physical exhaustion.
What part of the brain controls negative emotions?
The amygdala is, therefore, the main control nucleus of emotions and feelings in the brain, also controlling the responses of satisfaction or fear.
Where are your emotions located in your brain?
Brain studies have already shown that human emotions originate from the so-called limbic system.
It is true that the brain and the heart are related, since the heart beats at a different rate depending on the emotions that our body feels, but it is the brain that is in control. And not the whole brain, but a very specific part: the limbic system.
In this post we answered the question ‘’What part of the brain controls sadness?’’ We explained how the brain interprets sadness, we analyzed some studies on human sadness and the effects of depression on the brain.
If you have any questions or comments please let us know!
Pandya, M., Altinay, M., Malone, D. A., & Anand, A. (2012). Where in the Brain Is Depression? Current Psychiatry Reports, 14(6), 634–642. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-012-0322-7
Zhang, F.-F., Peng, W., Sweeney, J. A., Jia, Z.-Y., & Gong, Q.-Y. (2018). Brain structure alterations in depression: Psychoradiological evidence. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 24(11), 994–1003. https://doi.org/10.1111/cns.12835