The human brain is incredibly effective at balancing all the thoughts and feelings that go through each day. It seems like it just happens – we process all this information instantly without effort. However, this is far from reality. The brain is a complex computer that is designed to balance reasoning and emotions perfectly. In this article, neuroscientists explain how the brain does this.
New research described in Science Daily in September of 2020 reveals how “area 32” of our brain helps us in making sound decisions.
The Middle Man
There is an area of the brain that is called the anterior cingulate cortex. Scientists nicknamed the region “middle man,” because it connects to both the limbic and prefrontal cortex. The limbic system deals with behaviors and emotions, while the prefrontal cortex deals with more cognitive functions like memory, planning, and control.
You’re probably well aware of how hard it can be to balance emotions with reason. You’re human, and emotions can be overpowering sometimes. However, it’s important to make sure you listen to both sides. In the words of David Caruso, an actor, and a producer, “it is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart overhead–it is the unique intersection of both.” The anterior cingulate cortex is what causes this intersection.
Korbinian Brodmann, a 20th-century neurologist, discovered and mapped out 52 distinct areas of the cerebral cortex in 1909. Neurologists refer to these regaions as the Brodmann areas. The anterior cingulate cortex contains eight of these areas, divided into two categories: precingulate regions and postcingulate regions. Each category contains four Brodmann areas. The precingulate region contains areas 24, 25, 32, and 33. The postcingulate region contains areas 23, 29, 30, and 31.
The balancing act is done by area 32 of the anterior cingulate cortex, located in the precingulate region.
Human Emotions Are Strong
You’re probably well aware that humans are emotional creatures. People face a wide range of situations that induce certain moods, and these moods invoke a multitude of emotions. Depending on the mood and given situation, emotions can easily win over reasoning.
Psychologists believe that emotions drive our life decisions and the moves we make. That’s more of an intangible theory (one that seems too often be proven correct). The tangible fact is that Area 32 balances emotional choice with reasoning, and it’s up to you to choose one. In fact, the balancing act is what gives you a choice in the first place.
Emotional expression is governed in another area of the anterior cingulate cortex area 25. This area can become overactive in times of extreme distress or happiness. Some neuroscientists suggest that these extreme distressed or happy times may be exacerbated by an overactive area 25. No matter which way it happens, when area 25 is overactive, you may be more likely to make an emotional decision over a reasonable one.
Connecting and Balancing the Two Sides
In normal circumstances, there is a weak connection between the cerebral cortex’s emotional side and the reasoning side of the cerebral cortex. For these sides to cooperate and offer you a fair choice, the middle man, area 32, must be strong. However, it doesn’t work alone.
There is a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Think of it as the command center for area 32. It gives area 32 commands about balancing the emotional and logical sides of the brain.
At its core, the DLPFC leans more towards the reasoning side of the brain, but this balances off with the fact that area 32 is deeply connected to area 25. The DLPFC makes sure that area 25 doesn’t influence the decision too much. When the DLPFC malfunctions, this can cause you to lean one way or the other more.
For example, if the DLPFC is overactive, you could display obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) tendencies. If it’s underactive, you may be unreasonably emotional about everything all the time.
Gender-Specific Emotional Regulation
The brain is incredibly complicated, so we should not be surprised that gender is a key player in emotional regulation. You may hear people refer to this as women being more emotional than men. In society, that view may be a bit scathed, but scientifically speaking, it’s true.
Research in neurology has shown that women focus more on emotions when making decisions while under the influence of hormone-related and mood-affecting conditions. They may use maladaptive strategies like resignation, avoidance, or rumination. Examples of these conditions are premenstrual dysphoric disorder and pregnancy. It wouldn’t be fair to compare women to men in this situation since these are hormones and conditions that men don’t experience.
When you remove those conditions, neurologists have found that women are slightly better at balancing emotional responses with reasoning. This is because their frontal lobes are slightly bigger. Men have a slightly bigger amygdala, which is responsible for regulating negative emotions and the “fight or flight” reaction in stressful situations.
What does that mean?
If you ever want an example of this, imagine the man getting angry at another guy for checking out his girlfriend while the woman is trying to calm him down. This shows how the woman can balance both sides of the brain while the man’s larger amygdala sends signals of his territory being encroached on. However, if you put the woman in this situation while she is going through PMS, she is likely to cry or be angry rather than mediate, making the situation worse.
Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean the man will always go primitive and duel it out with the other guy. The same research suggests that men’s amygdalae have strong connections to the DLPFC so that a distraction could break that fight or flight response. In other words, the sight of his calming girlfriend is enough to kick in his reasonable thinking, so he’ll back off.
Neurodegenerative diseases and many forms of psychopathology can harm the way the brain balances emotions and reasoning. Neurodegenerative diseases are a more effective model for neurologists to study regarding this because they usually have a more set pattern for how they affect the brain. Scientists can identify five behaviors/moods that can overwhelm the reasonable side of the brain:
- Dysphoric mood
- Euphoric mood
Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia are two neurodegenerative diseases that directly affect the cingulate cortex. They cause early atrophy of the cingulate cortex, but research has shown that the anterior cingulate region’s degeneration is a strong indicator of behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD).
bvFTD and How It Affects the Balance Between Emotions and Reasoning
Most people are aware that dementia is a blanket term for a group of memory-loss related neurological disorders, including frontotemporal disorder. There are three types of frontotemporal disorders, and bvFTD happens to be the most common.
This type of dementia is more characterized by a change in personality, behavior, and judgment, and less memory loss. Their cognitive functioning may be impaired, and it may seem that they can’t remember things, but it’s more that they don’t have the mental capacity to be concerned with the things that are going on around them. This can include their basic biological needs.
Due to the degeneration of the anterior cingulate region, their ability to display emotional responses become severely compromised. They don’t recognize emotions, and although they may display a few emotions, they aren’t aware of it. In fact, they may display these emotions at completely inappropriate times. An example would be laughing at a funeral.
Proof of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex’s Balancing Role
There is plenty of research that shows the anterior cingulate cortex’s role in balancing emotions with reasoning. However, the diminished capacity of the anterior cingulate cortex and the inability to display appropriate emotions when a person has a neurodegenerative disease such as bvFTD is more evidence that supports the research. It’s clear that without the balance of the anterior cingulate cortex, area 32 in particular, there is no balance.
Humans may be emotional creatures, but our evolution has given us the gift of a strong brain area to help us make more logical decisions. Without it, we might be in trouble as a species. Even with the differences between genders, the anterior cingulate cortex paves the way for a healthy balance of emotions and reason in both men and women.
Although researchers have done many studies of the brain, neuroscientists will continue to explore this subject. The chances are that great discoveries are just around the corner. They may even discover a way to fix the imbalance in neurodegenerative diseases.