The Brain: A Secret History

Emotions.

Where do they come from? Do we have any control over them?

Dr Michael Mosley explores in this fascinating documentary that you can watch here and which I have summarised below.

The psychologist J. B. Watson believed there were three key emotions: fear, love and rage and that all subsequent emotions were some combination of these. Let’s look at a couple of them individually.

Fear

Mosley initially looked at fear, first hand, by squeezing through tiny tunnels. He noted his fear was around getting stuck, so a fear of the future. Can this be said for all fears, that they are associated with what might happen as opposed to what is happening at that moment?

Watson performed a controversial experiment called ‘Little Albert’ to investigate fear, whereby objects were put in front of an infant who at first had a neutral reaction. A loud noise was then made when the same objects were presented and thereafter, whenever the child saw the object it would show signs of fear. This is similar to the false fear memories that were made in mice (see The Amazing Brain) but can actually be used to overcome fears, by understanding that some irrational fears are created through association, so it should just be a case of re-associating a fearful situation with positivity.

As an example, Mosley introduced us to someone who had been afraid of dogs as a child but could now walk next to them in a park, as he was gradually exposed to his fear until it faded (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).

Rage

In 1961, Bandura conducted the Bobo Doll Experiment, where a child watched an adult beat up a large inflatable doll and then proceeded to copy the adult exactly once they left the room. What does this say about the types of programmes we watch on TV?

Mosley also looked at empathy, let’s just take a moment to define that here:

Empathy ~ the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Its that flinch when you see someone in pain, even though you don’t feel anything yourself – but what’s going on at a neurological level? Researchers are currently scanning the brains of people witnessing pain and experiencing pain to find out and perhaps they will provide us with a way of measuring empathy.

The documentary ended with a case of brain surgery that had left the patient unable to experience emotions, showing that our tears are as tangible as our thoughts. Where emotions come from is still a mystery to my mind, even though that’s where the answer lies!

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