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Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way—that is not easy.


Your emotions have a physical basis in the brain—which means that understanding how the brain processes emotions can help you understand them.

Figure 3.1 shows the parts of the brain that process emotions. This process works as follows:

  1. One of our five senses—sight, smell, taste, touch, or hearing— receives an external stimulus and sends a corresponding signal to the thalamus. The thalamus acts like an air traffic controller to keep the signal moving.

  2. Typically, the signal is sent to the cortex, which deciphers, analyzes, and categorizes the signal and sends it to the neocortex.

  3. The neocortex, which is the “thinking” brain that helps us solve problems, strategize, and analyze information, sends the signal to the amygdala.

  4. The stimulation of the amygdala—the “emotional” brain—provokes an emotional response (Goleman, 1998).


A simplified illustration of how the brain processes emotions.

The amygdala is the oldest, most primitive part of our brain. It organizes behavioral, autonomic, and hormonal responses to a variety of stimuli, including emotions that produce disgust, fear, or anger. It also plays a role in processing odors and pheromones, which are associated with sexual and maternal behaviors (Goleman, 1998).

The primary purpose of the amygdala is to keep us safe. It helps us avoid threats, protect ourselves from harm, and prepare ourselves for future dangers. The amygdala can respond to fear in as little as 0.07 seconds—which is why it is such an important part of our survival mechanism.

When our amygdala perceives a threat, it releases a stress hormone called cortisol into our prefrontal cortex (PFC). This prevents the PFC from operating at full capacity to manage complex processes like reason, logic, problem-solving, planning, and memory. Because we are so preoccupied by the threat, we can’t think logically or rationally. Basically, the PFC shuts down—which is why this process is often called an amygdala hijack.

At the same time, the amygdala triggers a physiological response to the perceived threat, often called the fight-or-flight response. This response, also known as the stress response, occurs when we are in the presence of something we perceive as harmful—either mentally or physically. This response spurs us to either fight back against the perceived danger or flee it.

When you experience the fight-or-flight response, your body undergoes a number of changes:

  • Your heart rate may increase.

  • Your vision may narrow (aka “tunnel vision”).

  • Your muscles may become tense.

  • You may begin to sweat.

  • Your hearing may become more sensitive.

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