Embrace Joy Chapter 4


Joy & Your Brain

Your emotions are an interweaving of physical, psychological and biochemical reactions to the world around you. Here, we will see that the brain has highly specialized equipment for sorting and processing our feelings.

PART 1

Where Happiness Happens

Distinct structures in your brain become highly active when you experience joy, happiness, laughter, a smile. Here are the parts of the brain involved in processing your positive emotions:

Amygdala
These two almond-shaped structures are located in the brain's temporal lobe. The amygdalae are involved in positive as well as negative emotions. When we are happy, the amygdala on the right side of the brain becomes much more active than the one on the left. The amygdalae also have a role in memory storage. READ MORE

Prefrontal cortex
The part of your brain right behind your forehead. Women show more activity in the left prefrontal cortex than the right when they are happy.

Hippocampus
Along with the amygdala, the hippocampus seems to help sort out emotionally significant events from those that are not worthy of storing away in long-term memory.

Anterior insular region
Part of the brain's cortex, or gray matter, with strong connections to the amygdala and other structures related to emotion. It is most active when people are recalling happy or sad events from the past. LESS
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PART 2

What Does a Joyful Brain Look Like?

With the advent of sophisticated brain imaging technology, scientists are getting better and better snapshots of what's going on in the brain when our emotions change. Because this kind of research is still being perfected, interpreting the results is not an exact science. But researchers are encouraged to see patterns repeated as they peer into the brains of emotionally charged volunteers. READ MORE

A study at Ohio State University first measured the relative happiness of its subjects using a standard happiness assessment. Then, subjects were shown images chosen to elicit positive, negative or neutral reactions. For all of the subjects, activity in the amygdala increased when they saw the positive images. But among the volunteers who were happiest in the first place, the activity in their amygdalae rose the highest—much higher than those subjects who had fair or low happiness to begin with. The researchers theorized that people with greater baseline happiness might have a greater connection to positive events and images, which would account for the difference in their reactions.

Another effect, first noticed by Mark George, M.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health, was that when his subjects were very happy, the regions of the brain involved in complex planning show a great decrease in activity. Does this show that the brain takes a break from serious processing when we're overjoyed? Scientists warn against overinterpreting any of this data, but the ability to see the brain in action is giving them loads of new insights as to what happens in our brains as our emotions change. LESS
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