Limbic System

Limbic System

Affect Brain Structure by Ian White

Here we look at the ways in which the brain processes and stores affect memory and emotional encodings by first looking at the physical structure of that part of the brain most implicated in the process of emotional memory.

You, of course, understand that the study of brain physiology is vast and complicated, so it’s appropriate to say at this point that our look at the “affect brain complex” is merely summarized here. Because we are investigating the brain, this does not mean that the role of mind, spirit, or soul is denigrated, but we are merely having a look at the processing neuro-engineering that allows our lives to be enriched by our minds and our emotional experiences.

The “Affect Neuro-machine.”

Emotional and affect responses stem from storage facilities housed in particular centers of the brain, contained within a part that is called many names:- the limbic brain, the reptilian brain, to name just a couple.

It is the centre of our subconscious emotional and affect processing and contains areas that give birth to our emotions, lay down and retrieve our memories, and attend to our survival.

The processes involved in affect memory storage are truly unconscious – that is, that they are below or beyond our capability to consciously understand them. That our emotions and feelings arise from a primal functioning area of our brain whose main, and sometimes only, task is survival.

The Limbic System

The limbic system of the brain is made up of many neural centres that go to driving the complex that is responsible for most of our experiences that are not a product of exercising conscious will. Experiences such as the restoration of conscious and episodic memory, and affect or emotional memory and trace-bridging to primal affect encodings.

The Emotion Centres

Physiologically, its structures that are important to affect memory are processing centers such as the hippocampus, the hypothalamus and, most importantly, the amygdala. The components of the limbic system are linked and interact in an amazingly complex way, with all its components working together simultaneously. BUT, it’s important to the affectologist to understand that emotionally charged information and material is processed, stored and consolidated initially by the amygdala, a small almond-shaped neural complex at the anterior aspect of the limbic system.

In the limbic brain, the two most significant bodies in the process of storing memory are the amygdala and its associated centre, the hippocampus. The amygdaloid-hippocampal pathway is responsible for overall encoding  of data (that we can call memory). The hippocampus records memory of events and objects as facts, while the amygdala assigns emotional content to those facts. While the hippocampus is relatively slow to develop its full capacity to interpret events and episodes – that is, many months – the amygdala is immediately capable (perhaps pre-natally) of encoding and storing information about feelings and reactions to those feelings.

Affect Memory

Let’s expand on the example of the baby in the last section of this lesson. Remember that we are not settling on any one time or life era in the development of the child,  but using this example to show how fragile “episodic memory” can be at any early stage in development.

The First Feeling – The First Emotion

So, let’s now have a peek at the process involved in developing our first important feeling reactions. These are called affect initiators . I could use any example of an experience at any time early in our lives, and for the sake of this example, let’s not talk about “in the womb” experiences, but use perhaps an early infant experience.

When the young baby receives an emotionally charged stimulus (and this is registered merely as DISCOMFORT), the information is carried instantaneously to the amygdala by various neural pathways. It’s important to say that this information is merely basic – basically uncomfortable, that is – and cannot be processed by the baby in any sophisticatedly analytical way. The amygdala then does its job of storage of that affect memory (in some ways, its ONLY job is the housing of emotional memory).

Let’s say that at one point, the baby of, perhaps, 6 weeks of age (just an arbitrary era) experiences a discomforting stimulus. This may be something as simple and benign as a change in its auditory environment; perhaps the parents with raised voices in the next room (not an argument), or an aeroplane flying low overhead, or some sudden noise like a dog barking or something dropping or crashing. It’s evident that all these experiences do not constitute trauma to the baby, but it’s also obvious that this stimulus can create discomfort in the baby’s experience: – negative emotional arousal.

Through the processing centres of the limbic system and surrounding bodies (the thalamus and the sensory cortex), this information is sifted and registered as “discomfort,” setting in train the same neurological dynamic that happens whenever we establish “something to be remembered” as part of our life experience. When emotional arousal occurs, particularly in any discomforting way, the limbic system becomes alarmed and unleashes a flood of stimulating chemicals, mostly norepinephrine.

Norepinephrine empowers the memory, “burning in” the emotionally charged crisis. This “burning in” is called taloning.  It’s important now to say that in the taloning process, it’s not the detail of the event, or the “story” of the episode that’s “burnt in” but simply the sense of the emotional experience.

This part of the brain is interested only in basic survival, and as such, must create a reaction or a response to the alarm. At such an early age, we are incapable of rational strategies even if we understood what the discomfort is about (which we don’t), so the only reaction available to us is an emotional or affect one. We respond to the alarm or discomfort with a feeling. The feeling produces an action (this may be crying or agitation) designed to get attention, and that action, in the majority of cases, causes us to get our primal needs met, whether by being re-comforted by our care-givers or by having the discomforting stimulus removed. And it’s at this precise point that we develop an unconscious construct that says, “when I feel any level of discomfort similar to this, I need to react in this way in order to get my needs met and my emotional stability restored.” In affectological terms, this constitutes the process of encoding affect response experiences that are designed to provide us with a template of how to respond in the future. This basis of initial learning and affect memory will influence us forever, going toward the initial building blocks of our emotional matrix, or our feeling subpersonality – our “sense of self.”

But the most important thing to remember about this section is that our building of emotional and feeling experiences and the unconscious memory (encoding) of them is a far cry from being the vague and ephemeral process that so many of us think. There is no mystery. We LEARN our feelings and emotions.

From Ian White – founder of Affectology

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