The Limbic System
Have you ever wondered what part of the brain controls emotions? While the entire central nervous system helps control our emotions, the limbic and autonomic nervous systems are key players when it comes to our emotional health. The limbic system as a whole — including subparts like the hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus — helps manage and regulate many emotional, voluntary, hormonal and visceral responses to our environments that we all experience on a daily basis. So what is the limbic system?
Diving into the Limbic System
Of all the areas of our complex brains, the limbic system is said to be one of the oldest and most primitive, having formed hundreds of thousands of years ago. In fact, similar systems are also found in most other animals, even reptiles. For humans, the word that best describes what the limbic system controls would be - “emotions.”
At all stages of our life, the limbic system help govern emotional behaviour and behavioural patterns. It's a big simplification to state that our emotions are determined only by limbic functions but it’s clear that this system plays a huge part in helping us do things like remember past events that were both pleasant and traumatic, perceive threats from our surroundings, make choices based on our experiences, control movements based on past learning, form sensory preferences/likes/dislikes, and much more.
Limbic System and Hippocampus Structures
There is still debate amongst neuroscientists and behavioural experts about which particular structures of the brain are technically part of the limbic system. However, it is generally agreed that the limbic system consists of cortical structures including:
- Amygdala: Related to processing fear and anxious emotions
- Cingulate Cortex: Includes many aspects of memory and emotion
- Fornix: Connecting other parts of the brain including mammillary bodies and hippocampus
- Hippocampus: Associated with focus, memory, and to a degree, motor control.
- Hypothalamus: Primarily responsible for maintaining homeostasis and regulating hormones.
- Mammillary Bodies: connected to the amygdala and hippocampus
- Parahippocampal Gyrus: Another memory region
- Septal Nuclei: Associated with reward and/or reinforcement through pleasurable experiences
Limbic System Functions
- Processing and responding to pain and pleasure
- Managing emotions like anger and fear
- Regulating eating patterns, and our relationship to hunger and thirst
- Directive functioning of the autonomic nervous system and homeostasis
- Sensing sexual arousal and satisfaction
- Regulating and controlling aggressive or violent behaviour
- Responding to sensory information, especially sense of smell
Hippocampus System Functions
- Forming short-term and long-term memories through consolidating information
- Learning new skills from reward, punishment, reinforcement and failure
- Recognition of what’s familiar versus new
- Navigation or sense of direction
- Spatial memory
- Involved in olfaction (smelling) and tying together smells with specific memories
The Emotional Switchboard of the Brain
As you’ve probably gathered, the limbic system plays a powerful role in creating different emotions and feelings. In fact, some even call it “the emotional switchboard of the brain.”
One important way that the limbic system impacts emotional health is by carrying sensory input from the environment to the hypothalamus and then from the hypothalamus to other parts of the body. The hypothalamus acts like the “regulator” of hormone control, helps the body maintain homeostasis and send signals to the pituitary/thyroid/adrenal glands. It receives information from many body parts, including the heart, vagus nerve, gut/digestive system and skin.
Because of the hypothalamus’s functions, the limbic system is directly in control of your “stress response” and these key functions:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Stress levels
- Hormone balance
Interactions between the hypothalamus and the rest of the limbic system are responsible for controlling the autonomic nervous system — including the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). In other words, the SNS and PNS control our “fight or flight” response. Disorders like generalized anxiety, social anxiety, phobias, bipolar disorder, and even addictions and depression are tied to hyperarousal, high amounts of anxiety/fear and dysfunctions of the fight-flight-response.
Anxiety and high amounts of stress (including increased cortisol levels) also have an impact on inflammation levels, digestion and gut health, cardiovascular functions, your immune system, and the reproductive system — sometimes contributing to disorders like diabetes, insomnia, high blood pressure, higher susceptibility to infections and infertility.
Disorders of the Limbic System
Because subparts of the limbic system ultimately regulate important aspects of our conscious and unconscious patterns — including our emotions, perceptions, relationships, behaviours and motor control — it’s easy to see why damage to this region can cause serious problems. Disorders or behaviours that are related to limbic system dysfunction, or sometimes limbic system damage due to things like traumatic injuries or aging, include:
- Disinhibited behaviour: This means someone doesn’t consider the risk of behaviours and ignores social conventions/rules.
- Increased anger and violence: This is commonly tied to amygdala damage.
- Hyperarousal: Amygdala damage, or damage to parts of the brain connected to the amygdala, can cause increased fear and anxiety. Anxiety disorders are sometimes treated with drugs that target areas of the amygdala to decrease fear-based emotions.
- Hypoarousal: This can cause low energy or lack of drive and motivation.
- Hyperorality/Kluver-Bucy Syndrome: This is characterized by amygdala damage that can lead to an increased drive for pleasure, hypersexuality, disinhibited behaviour and insertion of inappropriate objects in the mouth.
- Appetite dysregulation: Destructive behaviours tied to hyperorality or thalamus dysfunction can include overeating, binge eating or emotional eating.
- Trouble forming memories: Hippocampal damage can include short-term or long-term memory loss. Learning is often greatly impacted by hippocampal damage, since it depends on memory. Someone with the condition anterograde amnesia loses the ability to form and retain new memories. Interestingly, sometimes someone can hold on to older/long-term memories but lose the ability to form new short-term memories.
- Cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease: Research shows that people with Alzheimer’s and memory loss usually have experienced damage to the hippocampus. This causes not only memory loss, but also disorientation and changes in moods. Some of the ways that the hippocampus can become damaged include free radical damage/oxidative stress, oxygen starvation (hypoxia), strokes or seizures/epilepsy.
Nurobodi - Helping keep the Limbic System Healthy
Nurobodi Sound Sessions
Deep breathing exercises coupled with intentional relaxation of muscles engage the circuitry of the PNS and strengthens it for future use. Relaxing/deep breathing also quiets the fight-or-flight SNS, since relaxed muscles send feedback to the alarm centres in the brain that there are no threats present. Nurobodi one-on-one sessions, or group environment designs, support and stimulate brainwave entrainment to particular wavelengths that stimulate the SNS or the PNS. Nurobodi designs also facilitate an integrated experiential awareness of synonymous relationships between internal and external spectrum health.
Nurobodi Light/Colour Sessions
Visual stimuli have important influences on emotional health, socialization and well-being. They can even be used to reduce anxiety disorders or symptoms of autism.
Nurobodi light/colour designs calibrate your personal and specific awareness of relationships between colour and emotions. Furthermore, Nurobodi light/colour research utilises and combines both the latest scientific breakthroughs and ancient knowledge and wisdom when working colour spectrum therapy.
Qi Gong & Mindful Exercise
Exercise helps control stress, balance hormones (such as cortisol), raise immune function and lower inflammation. One of the ways it does this is by training your autonomic nervous system/fight-flight-response to return to normal more quickly following periods of stress/arousal.
Nurobodi takes these factors one step further by bringing mindfulness coaching and Qi Gong movements and breathing techniques to your personalised wellbeing schedule.