Biology of Emotional Behavior / Neuroscience Article

Published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 2002 Sep; 4(3): 231–249.

The biology of fear and anxiety-related behaviors

Thierry Steimer, PhD (55 papers)
From the Abstract:

In a book published in 1878 (Physiologie des passions), Charles Letourneau, who was contemporary with the French neuroanatomist Paul Broca, defined emotions as “passions of a short duration” and described a number of physiological signs and behavioral responses associated with strong emotions.1 Emotions are “intimately linked with organic life,” he said, and either result in an “abnormal excitation of the nervous network,” which induces changes in heart rate and secretions, or interrupt “the normal relationship between the peripheral nervous system and the brain.” Cerebral activity is focused on the source of the emotion; voluntary muscles may become paralyzed and sensory perceptions may be altered, including the feeling of physical pain. (Note that this is a description of a physiological event) This first phase of the emotional response is followed by a reactive phase, where muscles come back into action, but the attention still remains highly focused on the emotional situation.

With the knowledge of brain physiology and anatomy that was available at the end of the 19th century, hypotheses on the mechanisms possibly involved in emotions were of course limited. However, Letourneau assumed that “the strong cerebral excitation” that accompanies emotions probably only concerned “certain groups of conscious cells” in the brain and “must necessitate a considerable increase of blood flow in the cell regions involved.” (Curious – can a cell be “conscious?)

He also mentioned that the intensity, the expression, and the pathological consequences of emotions were directly linked to temperaments” (which he defined within the four classic Hippocratic categories). Note that hypotheses and speculation by early investigators are often grandfathered in as theories, by default – and become the guiding “concepts” of contemporary science, often without question. The reverse is also common: “good science” from the past may be dismissed, merely on the basis that “new” is better: the myth of inevitable linear progress!

The fact that emotions are “intimately linked with organic life,” his precise description of the sequence of the physiological and behavioral reactions that accompany a strong emotion, such as fear, the idea that emotions involve specific areas of the brain, and the theory (hypothesis, guess) that activation of these areas is associated with an increased blood flow have all been largely confirmed (waffling) by modern neuroscience. The suggestion (mandatory waffling since the following statement isn’t provable by scientific standards) –  that temperament or personality traits influence the “affective style” and vulnerability to psychopathology is also an important aspect of our modern approach to anxiety and mood disorders. Is this a description of a physiological phenomenon or an opinion advanced by Hippocrates?


See post:  

Also search my blog: “neuroscience” “brain scans” for multiple related posts


For a long time, emotions were considered to be unique to human beings, and were studied mainly from a philosophical perspective.3 Evolutionary theories and progress in brain and behavioral research, physiology, and psychology have progressively introduced the study of emotions into the field of biology, and understanding the mechanisms, functions, and evolutionary significance of emotional processes is becoming a major goal of modern neuroscience. But! The takeover of human behavior, it’s definition as “pathology” by psychology (not a science) is already defeating this revolutionary  science-based inquiry. 

Three fundamental aspects of emotions

The modem era of emotion research probably started when it became obvious that emotions are not just “feelings” or mental states, but are accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes that are an integral part of them. Technically this is backwards: the physiology of organisms’ reactions to the environment, as produced by evolutionary processes, preceded by billions of years the manmade practice of “naming” those reactions as “emotions” – and claiming that emotion is exclusive to humans. The “exclusivity” idea that “emotion” is a phenomenon that occurs only in humans is utterly preposterous. Animals (and all organisms) could not exist without reacting  to and interacting with the environment; it’s logically and physically impossible. 

The socio-religious belief that our species is a special creation, and the universe is merely a stage-set for his magnificence is obnoxious – and as yet, despite claims that this narcissistic focus on MAN has been magically removed from the “human sciences” is obviously not true.

The “levels” scheme below, is not a reformation of prior mistakes, but functions to retain the socio-religious “metaphysical” control of human behavior, but disguised as the pseudoscience of modern psychology. By piggy-backing onto neuroscience, “priestly” power to define and enforce the social stratification of behavioral privilege at the top of the hierarchy) and rampant inequality, is retained by pathologizing group after group of “lesser” humans. Nice trick!!!

This has progressively led to today’s view of emotions being experienced or expressed at three different, but closely interrelated levels: Here we go: everything must be split into levels, regardless of how nature – our brain – actually works. The mental or psychological level (dominated by “approved” socio-religious prescriptions) the (neuro)physiological level, (what the brain-body does) and the behavioral level (socio-religious enforcement – social control). These three complementary aspects are present in even the most basic emotions, such as fear.

more at PubMed


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