Labeling Emotions Diminishes Their Power
> 6/10/2008 1:54:00 PM


The common perception that verbalizing one's mental distresses will help a patient diminish and better understand his or her negative emotions is perhaps the central tenet of talk therapy. Brain-scan based research continues to further this belief, indicating that emotions, when considered as linguistic abstracts, engender less severe reactions in outside parties. Perhaps language allows for a greater disconnect between the raw experience of the emotions on display and their conceptual representations.

Central to the emotional perception equation are the two specific areas of the brain: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC) and the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure on either side of the brain which has long been named as the nervous system's emotional arbiter, responsible for both instinctive emotional intelligence and accrued memory. In a display of the regions' influence on sensation and response, test monkeys whose amygdalas had been removed often lacked appropriate reactionary mechanisms, evincing blunted emotions, a lack of proper fear, anger or hesitance in the face of potentially dangerous stimuli, and an inability to control sexual behavior and eating patterns. In multiple previous studies, subjects responded to emotionally distressing stimuli with increased bloodflow and metabolism in the direct vicinity of the amygdala. Patients with various depressive disorders have also consistently displayed smaller amygdalas, particularly on the right side; these symptoms are largely genetic and can be predicated by childhood family stress. A gender specification in the system's functions has also been noted, but not, to date, sufficiently explained: men tend to respond to stressors with increased activity in the right amygdala, where the same action in women takes place on the opposite side.

In experiments conducted in 2007, patients were instructed to either match faces that had been assigned with proper, gender-specific names and link them to others displaying similar emotional states or provide words to describe the emotions these faces displayed. Researchers found that the task of assigning words to various emotions tempered the amygdala's responses - visible increases in local activity were less extreme than when subjects simply chose a name to represent the faces. The area most actively involved in the adjective selection process was, instead, the RVLPFC, an area of the brain responsible for impulse control and, in some cases, motor control in reacting to immediate stimuli such as maneuvering toward traffic or avoiding falling objects.

The most common reaction to displays of emotion on the part of third parties is to mimic, in empathy, the same feelings - hence the teary responses to touching ballads or movie scenes, and the anger viewers often share with like-minded political pundits/announcers. But when the brain looks to describe said sensations, it moves through a more considered rational process, thereby distancing itself from the actual feeling. Watching the death of a character on a screen and the sadness it brings about may provoke at least small degrees of melancholy in the viewer, but when asked to comment on what he or she has just seen, the subject will become more involved in the process of considering the reaction and thereby less directly affected by it. The same principle holds true for those trying to better explain and understand events in their own lives, hence its relevance to various forms of therapy. While recalling, for example, a traumatic or upsetting personal event, patients may initially regress toward some of the negative feelings this particular stimuli first brought about, but will eventually be able to think it over in a more reasoned way. This process does not, for the most part, provide measurably deeper personal insight at first, nor does it negate the valid and affecting emotions initially associated with the event; it simply dampens the brain's physical response. Which, especially for those affected by serious depression, can be a very good thing.

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