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The Complex Nature of Emotions

I recently watched the newest Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out. Beyond the great creative qualities of the film that we’ve come to expect, I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of some of the psychological concepts presented.

The story is simple. Riley is a young girl, age 11, who struggles when the family moves across the country.  The movie primarily takes place in her “brain” with artistic, imaginative characters depicting the emotions of joy, fear, anger, sadness and disgust. Together they man the control panel of her emotional responses, often coloring her thoughts.

The character Joy does all she can to keep Riley happy, seeing another character, Sadness, as a threat. Sadness accepts her evaluation, but is unable to feel anything but sad. The effort to control or suppress sadness in Riley’s brain seems to increase Sadness’s influence elsewhere in her brain and in her life.

The Importance of Emotion

Despite the negative rap emotions often receive, they are a primary aspect of human functioning and innate to all of us.

  1. Emotions provide information, telling us what we are experiencing and what we need. “Emotions can serve as our compass on life’s journey- letting us know when to turn and ultimately, where to go” (Siegel, 2013). Emotions help organize our experience and prompt us for action. For example, fear can propel us to avoid danger, jealousy can prompt us to be more attentive to a relationship, sadness moves us to grieve and anger can cause us to take action to change an injustice. Emotions can also lead us to ineffective, hurtful and even dangerous actions. Because emotions provide information, it is essential that we experience and learn to identify all of our emotions.
  2. Emotions also communicate to others information about us through words, tone of voice and nonverbal expressions. Susan Johnson, a psychologist and originator of  Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, has written many books on the importance of the emotional bond to relationships. She described emotion as, “the music of the couple’s dance”, “organizing key interactions” and “pulling for responses from others” (Johnson, 2003).  Emotions can be the glue of relationships or the wedge pressing an increasing divide.

Emotions are Not Isolated

Spradlin, a mental health professional and author of the book, Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life:  How Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Can Put You in Control, explains that when an emotion occurs, a “biological complex” is activated. He points out that emotions do not occur in isolation. We experience emotion in connection with a triggering event, thoughts about the event, changes in the brain, changes in our body, and behaviors. There are many factors that affect this complex response including the intensity of the situation, one’s temperament, current physical state (hungry, tired, stressed) and past experiences. However, our overall tendency toward reacting ineffectively versus responding aptly to our emotions is influenced in part by how our brains function.

Our Brain Needs to Function as a Whole

Dr. Daniel Siegel has conducted research and written several books on brain function. He highlights the importance of brain integration or accessing all areas of the brain to function optimally. He provides a simple explanation of the brain by dividing it between the upstairs brain, which includes the cerebral cortex and related parts, and the downstairs brain, which is comprised of the brain stem and limbic system. Functions of imagination, thinking, reasoning, and planning occur in the cerebral cortex. The brainstem receives input from the body (that queasy feeling in our stomach just before an exam) and regulates the body’s functions (heart, lungs, hunger, temperature, etc.). The limbic system is primarily responsible for evaluating our current situation and preparing us for action. Siegel (2011, 2013, 2014) explains that there needs to be integration between the upper brain and lower brain to complete the biological complex and facilitate an effective emotional response to a trigger. Without integration, emotion is primarily processed in the lower brain, taking a shorter message route between perception and reaction; preparing us for immediate fight, flight or flee. With integration, the message travels slower into the upper brain, where thinking can intervene with the emotion, leading to a more effective response.

The Role of Memories

“Why do I keep reacting the same way when I know better?”

Memories also play a role in how we respond emotionally. Our brain makes connections between emotional triggers and how we responded to them in the past. Les Greenberg is a psychologist and one of the originators and primary developers of Emotion-Focused Therapy. He explained that processed information about events is stored in one area of the brain, and the emotional response to that event is stored in another area. An emotional response to a current event may be triggered because it “feels” like a past event, even when the situation is not the same. If that past event was not processed properly, our response in the present is likely to take the shorter route through the lower brain and resemble the reaction of the past. On the other hand, memories of processed information can move us to take helpful actions.

When an emotional event is processed and given meaning, even a frightening experience can be responded to with wisdom. For example, a sudden, scary noise outside a window frightens a child, but Mom shows him it is the tree branch rubbing against the house due to the wind. With this added meaning to the memory, he is more likely to check out the source of a new or unusual noise in the future. Without this insight, he might become startled and anxious when hearing scary noises well into his future.

Going back to the movie, Riley was being kept from feeling sadness. Her increasingly confused state moved her toward a dangerous action and away from her parents. When sadness broke through, she recalled a memory of being comforted in her sadness and returned to her parents for comfort and direction.

Change is Possible

Emotions are not just feelings; they are derived through a complex system that involves feeling, thinking, functions and connections of the brain, systems in the body and past experiences. The good news is that the way our brain works and how we process emotion is not permanent. It is now known that the connections in the brain change throughout our lives – a capacity known as neuroplasticity.

There are many activities, including psychotherapy, that can create change, but they all begin with simple awareness. Look for more information about emotions, as well as tools for increasing awareness, managing distress, and regulating emotions in future posts. If your emotions, or supposed lack of them, are affecting your relationships or functioning, contact a Cherry Hill Therapist for help.


Greenberg, L. S. (2002) Emotion-Focused Therapy:
Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings.

Johnson, S. M. (2004) The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.

Siegel, D. J. (2011) Mindsight

Siegel, D. J. (2013) Brainstorm

Siegel, D.J. & Bryson, T. P. (2014) No-Drama Discipline

Spradlin, S. E. (2002)Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life.

Jonas Rivera, Producer & Pete Doctor, Director (2015) Inside Out. USA: Pixar & Walt Disney Pictures.


Image courtesy of Kyrre Gjerstad at

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