A Cognitive Neuroscience Approach to Understanding Feelings

In this blog post, we’ll discover the hidden drivers of our feelings. We’ll uncover what they are, what they represent, and how we learn from them. In this process, we’ll discover some of the basic mechanics of the way our minds work and how this is so foundational to other fields (including the basis of cognitive behavioural therapies, attachment styles, and a new perspective on trauma and memory). This will be through understanding the components that make our decision making.

We’ll delve deep into the concepts of mirror neurons and how they affect the ways we see the world. We’ll learn about how we perceive emotions in others and how to understand what those emotions are. We’ll form an understanding that people treat us largely in-part as a mirror of what we present to them. It’s for this reason that emotions are contagious – we can evoke them in others through our expression. 

In this process, we’ll also uncover what gut feelings are, and how we often know what to do from our first instinct. Some things are so essential and basic to human interaction that it seems they are coded in our DNA. Across cultures, time points, and geographies, some things are responded to in the same way – based on the first instinct. 

This knowledge of understanding feelings will be useful not just for managing conflict, but any situation in which two people have interaction. Through understanding psychology and the ways our brain works, we can come to better understand how to be most effective in our interactions with others. Here at Learn2Love, we’re all about working smarter – not necessarily harder.

Introduction: machine learning and brain size  

Why are our brains so big? This has been a question that has perplexed thinkers for decades. Anthropologists, palaeontologists, biologists and others have for a long-time tried to understand this phenomenon. Why is it that other living things can thrive on such smaller brains? 

One answer comes from an understanding of the society we live in today. It’s quite complicated, to say the least. There is so much going on around us, and we do evermore increasingly complex tasks at our work. Just look at the number of job titles that are out there today – more than in any other generation ever. With every generation, it seems that there is simply more to do. 

Yet something interesting has come along this wave of society getting evermore complex. Technology. Computers. Artificial intelligence. 

If you have been around for some time, you will know that there has been a revolution in tech. What once took a room to do some simple math equations can now be stored in our pockets. Could you imagine telling your grandmother that she could have all the music she’d ever wanted to listen to in her pocket? Told in any other generation, such an idea would be considered on the far-realm of fantasy. Yet today, it’s a reality. 

One of the most interesting technological advances of the past 50 years, in my opinion, is machine learning. This technology can be supervised or unsupervised, such that you tell it what you want it to do or you don’t. In unsupervised machine learning, you give a computer a whole lot of data and ask it to make associations with it. To figure out what each of the data points means, and how each relates to the others. 

One example of this would be to understand if one factor influences another. For example, fed a bunch of data on cloud cover and how much it rained, the computer might be able to figure out that it’s more likely to rain on days when it was cloudy. 

We call this machine learning because machines are essentially learning. 

In a very similar way to the ways that we learn.

Machine learning is all about finding the connections between things using mathematical formulas

Have you ever thought of something for a while, and then suddenly had a ‘eureka!’ moment where you just made a connection in your head? That you figured out that one thing leads to another – or what could be causing something? This is in many ways similar to an unsupervised machine learning algorithm in concept. The difference being that the one association was formed using mathematical concepts and computer hardware, and the other by chemical reactions in interconnected neurons we are yet to fully grasp.

When we learn, we are primarily thinking about things in relation to other events. We think about something for a while until it “makes sense” in the grand scheme of our mental map. We find a place for it to fit within the scope of our current understanding of the world. In the early years of grade school, we build the outlines of mental maps we can grow in late teen and adult years. Just like computers start by categorizing data in more general categories before getting into specific differences between them. Everything is understood in relation to everything else. 

At the start of this article, we mentioned brain size. Why are our brains so big? The first theory suggested was that such a brain would be required to engage in such a sophisticated world. But the world was not always so sophisticated, was it? I mean, surely before the industrial revolution when most people were manual labourers doing repetitive jobs, the world was simpler wasn’t it? 

Here comes a second theory. It’s to suggest that the world was always complicated. Very complicated. But not in terms of the technologies we utilize to create complex societies and interact with them. It’s there to help us interact with each other. 


What are feelings and what are the components that drive them?

Understanding emotion is one of the most sophisticated things that people do in their lifetime. Decoding it. Deriving meaning from it. A huge amount of cognitive resources are needed to understand what someone is feeling and to do this quickly. Yet this is so essential for our ability to relate and live to each other as humans. 

Take humour, for example. What is the difference between when something is funny and when it is not? Our brain can just figure this out for us, right? We just laugh without thinking. But that process of what occurs to make it funny, which makes us laugh in the first place, is perplexing many researchers around the world. How do we know what is appropriate and not appropriate? How do we know when something is sad or funny? How do we know how to act? 

Emotions are confusing. It's hard to know how we are supposed to act sometimes.

You may be reading this and feeling overwhelmed by the task of knowing how to act. Or maybe you’ve never thought of this before. Luckily we have our brains to the rescue. For many of us, we go by our feelings. We just do what “feels” right. Through understanding the process of how we get here, we can learn how to better deal with the feelings of others in times of conflict. How to help them get to calm again. 

Feelings are sensations created by our brains to help guide our actions. They are largely the result of hormones, affected by neurotransmitters, activated by neurons, which are located in the brain. For example, if something seems dangerous or unsafe, your brain can make you “feel” anxious about being there. This feeling tells you to be on high alert (higher heart rate, more tense muscles better primed to react to sudden changes, heavier breathing to get your body ready for the potential need of physical exertion). It’s just easier for our brain to get the message across to our bodies through feeling than other methods. 

For example, could you imagine your brain telling you: “Hey, I need you to do A with your heart, B with your muscles, and C with your breathing!” That would take too long. It would just create the feeling and everything would happen automatically. The same is true for the saying “go with your gut.” What that means, really, is “think about what your brain is trying to tell you (from the way it makes your body feel.” 

But how do we know if something is good or bad? For example, how does our brain know to make us feel anxious around a dimly lit room with creaky floors? What about a snake? What about a candle? Why do some people get scared around some things, but not others?

Many people find wolves and the nighttime scary. Maybe this is because they have been able to pose a threat to humans for so long.

The answer to this has also been perplexing cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists alike for decades. But one interesting and popular theory is that people compare situations to known events in their heads. Kind of like a database – they check a new piece of information, the new event, against the information they have in their heads already from past events. Then, they see where it should be grouped under. 

Take this example: You are walking on a trail surrounded by forest. The sky is mostly clear, summer sun warm, and trees loom high above. Leaves brilliant green. A light breeze brushes your cheek – perfect to cool against the heat of the summer sun. Birds chirp in the distance. Flowers line the sides of the path. Summer.

Imagine that you are walking on a trail in the forest.

How would you categorize this event in your head? First, many would break down the setting into components, such as: forest, sun, summer, birds, walking, flowers. Then, they would check those components against existing memories they have in their head associated with those components. This would consist of memories in which a forest, sun, summer, walking, ext were involved together. 

Finally, a feeling would arise presenting what that association found. For example, if forest + walking + sun + flowers is usually associated with a sense of peace, then one would feel peaceful during this walk. But if someone once had a bad memory in a forest, such as being lost or left there, or a negative experience on a camping trip surrounded by forests, the ‘forest’ component of this walk may trigger anxiety. So one would feel anxious along this walk.

This concept, of recognizing which components act as triggers for stressful events and why, is a major part of many cognitive behavioural therapies. It also has to do with the saying “face your fears.” The idea is that once you “face” the fear, you create an opportunity for a new (hopefully positive) association to be attached to it. Therefore, when the component presents itself again, you can recall the more positive experience with it instead of the more negative, and be less likely to engage with it. 

By facing our fears, we can form new associations between them as a component, and the feelings that arise from them. Maybe they are not so bad after all.

This process of creating new associations is also why remembering positive memories a partner has with their husband/spouse is so important to rekindling a damaged marriage. When a partner can only remember negative times they shared with another, the component of that partner leads to anxious feelings.

These feelings make it hard for the partner to want to work on building the relationship at all or reengaging with the other. But by remembering the positive moments together, a more positive association with the partner can form. This way, more positive feelings can arise from interactions with them – as once did when the couple fell in love. 

This idea about our feelings being representations of the sum of components we engage in is similar in concept to machine learning. In machine learning, new information is compared to existing information to see what category it should fall under. Our minds hold the information associated with each component from past events. 

For example, if we felt loved as children and trusted our parents, then the component of love in a relationship may make us feel like we want to melt into the other with joy. Or, if love became associated for us with rejection, it may make us feel anxious. This simple understanding of the way our brains classify information forms a foundation for examining attachment theory and styles in future posts.

Our children are watching us. What we show them helps to guide the feeling they associate with various components.


How do we understand emotion? 

So far, we have spent a lot of time discussing what feelings are, and in the process how we learn and form memories. To recap: feelings are the result of an examination of the components associated with a specific moment. If the sum of those components is associated with good, then we feel good. If there are some good and some bad, we may feel unsure or uneasy. 

Yet emotion is far more complex than just simple associations. People are just so complex. There are so many facial expressions involved in emotional regulation. How do we know what the other really means? What about what they feel? Is something supposed to be funny or sad? 

To solve this problem, our brains do something brilliant. How do you think it answers the question of which emotion another is experiencing? Based on what we’ve discussed so far, we’d think that we’d rely on components from memory, right? For example, eyes close together + smiling could be associated with a memory of seeing someone happy when their eyes were close together and they were smiling. Therefore, we’d think based on these components that they are happy. 

But that would take a lot of mental energy. Emotions change so fast, and there is so much in them. How can you tell the difference between a real and a fake smile? Our brain counters this by doing something brilliant – it tries to guess how it would respond to the same situation. 

This is done through the concept of mirror neurons. These are neurons that fire in near-perfect synchrony to the neurons in another person’s brain. Get this. So let’s say that someone is sad. We are going here with the idea that all feelings in our bodies come from the brain. More specifically, neuron sequencing events. When a specific series neurons fire together in combination, that leads to a specific action. (Lots more on this in our discussion on habits).

So when we look at someone, our brains will fire the same neurons that the other person is firing in their brains. Then, the brain will see what feeling that neuron combination makes them feel. Then, we will guess that this is the same feeling that the other is experiencing at the moment. 

Here is a picture of a neuron and the brain (visualization). The brain contains billions of them, and responds to them according to their 'firing.' (More technically 'action potentials').

This is brilliant! Have you ever felt happy around someone that was genuinely happy? Or laughed with someone just because they were laughing, and couldn’t help yourself? Has seeing someone cry ever made you want to cry? 

Feelings are contagious. Because we feel by firing the same neurons as those around us. 

Now, this is fascinating because it goes both ways. Just as emotions create feelings (physical sensations in our bodies), feelings (literally physical sensations) can lead to the creation of specific emotions. (Ex, hugging someone when they are sad to make them feel like they are not alone – I mean literally, you are touching them). Now emotions can also be contagious due to the effects of mirror neurons. 

Just as our brain fires the same neurons as those around them to understand their emotion (literally “mirroring”), we can evoke specific neuron firing events in others. For example, when you smile at someone genuinely, it’s hard for them not to smile back, right? We have evoked this sensation in them.

So if you want to help someone calm down when they are sad, you can model what you want to see in them. This can help to literally evoke that in them, like a mirror. 

Now the best part of all of this is that we know it intuitively from deep within us. It is instinctual across human reactions across the world, across ages, and across millennia. I can show this to you by asking the question: what do you do when a baby cries? 

When a baby cries we have the instinct to smile to them or portray safety in a different way. We know that we can model what we want to see in them.

Regardless of your age or country of origin, you will likely be attuned to the idea of smiling to the baby (mirror neurons – modelling what you want the baby to feel), saying “I’m with you, I’m here” (showing empathy, understanding that intense emotion is primarily an expression of fear), and holding or rocking the baby (using physical sensations to evoke emotional ones of security). 

Isn’t that amazing! We know this. It’s likely part of our DNA. For when many of the things that are important for survival and function are already planted in our DNA, it makes it easier to survive and thrive. For example, it’s hard not to teach a child language. They will pick it up, in most cases, no matter what to do. It’s also hard to get someone not to have the instinct to pick up a baby, model a smile to them, and say “I’m here.” 

(By the way, this concept of ingrained responses is so well-known in Hollywood, that there are simulated high-pitch screams that seem to come from a baby in nearly any horror movie. This could be part of the background music, or just explicit in the scene. People universally are so likely to feel stressed and anxious by this, giving them a rush of adrenaline to make them want to help the baby, that it works nearly any time).

When you go with your gut, it means that the sum of components from a deep instinctual reaction may be encouraging you to make a certain decision. Now it’s not always effective, but can be in many situations.


Bonus: A New Perspective on Memory and Trauma

Why do some things cause us to be more scared than others? Evidence is pointing increasingly to our genetic code and early childhood experiences for this. It seems that there are some things that we are more easily primed to be scared of than others. For example, having an adult show fear of a snake next to a child is enough to make them fear snakes for life, whereas it is harder to get a child to be fearful of a moving car. 

In fact, because of this, if I included a picture of a snake right here in the blog post, I know that many of you would feel tense. Just for fun. Pay attention to your response:

Many of us associate fear with the component, or trigger, of seeing snakes. This is likely because they have posed a risk to humans for thousands of years.

It seems that it would be easier for people to be born with some things that make them more easily scared than others. For example, a burn from a stovetop is often enough to teach a child not to put their hand on a hot stove again. Pain-related association is so important for learning (such as to know to blow on hot soup before putting it in your mouth), that a medical condition called congenital analgesia can be deadly. 

This condition consists of an individual from being unable to experience pain. They may end up putting themselves in very dangerous situations they are not aware they should be avoiding (such as letting the water cool before swallowing when steam is rising from it). 

Early childhood experiences are also very helpful for forming lifelong associations. When they are negative, they can become quite ingrained. This is largely due to the concept of neurons that fire together writing together, which will be discussed in more detail in later posts on habits. The idea though is that some negative associations can stick with us for a long time that hinders our ability to function in society. They can be the result of early-childhood events, or events that occur later in life. 

This can present itself in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, or other trauma-related diagnoses. The idea is that a component of everyday situations that should otherwise be associated with little emotion has a heavy negative association with it. Because of this, anxious feelings arise from situations which they would not normally be expected to. 

For example, we would expect someone to feel very tense from someone robbing their house and deem this behaviour normal, but not anxious feelings which arise from needing to go to the grocery store. When the component that triggers the anxious feeling is so common that it hinders one’s ability to engage in everyday life, a disorder may be descriptive of the symptoms in place. 

It would be completely reasonable for someone to feel fear regarding a house robbery. But not going to the grocery store. The associated feelings with components can determine trauma or a trauma-related disorder.

When thought about in this way, trauma can be understood in a new light. As the presence of a component that had a large negative attachment to it that is misplaced according to norms of society. Therefore, anxious or otherwise negative emotions can arise in places where it would be better if they didn’t. When this hinders one’s ability to engage in society, a disorder might be diagnosed. 

Cognitive-behavioural therapies can help to recognize these associations and uncouple the negative feelings associated with them.

Another important concept to bring up is memory and the way that memory affects associations. Have you ever heard of the idea of memory being dynamic, changing all the time? If you line up five people who each witnessed the same crime, they may each share with you a very different recollection of events than what actually occurred. This is a common understanding in the courts, which is why witness testimony alone is not enough to convict someone in many cases. 

The same is true regarding the ways that couples relate to and engage with each other. At one point, the couple felt very close and happy together. The thought of the other inspired tremendous joy. But if the relationship changes, the other partner takes on a new associated feeling – the component of that partner moves from joy to pain. But the problem is that we have many memories of that partner from a place of joy. But those memories no longer work with the new regard we have of them. 

The more we think negatively of our partners, the more intense the negative association we have with them may become. (Especially because neurons that fire together wire together, and vice versa – more on this in future posts). So what happens? We end up forgetting or modifying those memories. Either we can no longer think about them, or when we do, we think about them in a new light. Our memory changes to suit our current thoughts.

Memory is dynamic. It changes based on the associated feelings we place with particular components at any given time.


What about the concept of feelings glitching? 

If you’ve been following our YouTube and podcast, you’ll see that we’re heavy on the idea that feelings don’t have IQ. They glitch. This is largely based on external factors affecting our mood – related to components.

For example, if you are hungry, the negative component of hunger in the dynamic may make you feel sad. Because your partner is around, you may then associate that sadness with being around your partner. But the glitch is in assigning responsibility for the feeling. 

Remember that feelings are the result of the sum of components in any given situation. If one component makes us feel very stressed, and the rest of them make us feel relaxed, we will feel based on the proportion of these together.

The component that creates stress may overpower the good feelings from the others. Or hunger. But we are not that good at knowing which component of the setting caused the stress. 

When we argue with someone, what is it really for? Is the feeling we attach to that component of something they are doing legitimate, or is it more related to something else? What about the ways we take care of ourselves?

For example, say you are hungry and your partner wants you to do a simple house task. This could look like sweeping the floor. Your stomach grumbles and the day at work was stressful. Surely, the last thing we want to do right now is getting to sweep the floor. We just want to have a snack and get to the couch. At the moment, our partners seem awfully cruel. “Who are they to ask that?” We might think. “Don’t they know how hard we work around here?” 

It wouldn’t be so far fetched to come to the conclusion: “They don’t appreciate me and what I do around here enough.” In this light, our partner appears quite negative. But this is not realistically in proportion to what we would expect from such an encounter. All of this, over wanting to sweep the floor! It’s not our partners that are causing such negativity in us, it is really ourselves. We just take it out on our partner because it is simpler to put them to blame. We want to feel like we are treating ourselves as best we can, right? 

But it’s not our partner that’s causing the dynamic. It is the components of stress, tiredness, potentially irritability due to being sedentary, and hunger. If we slept more the night before, went for a walk from the second-last subway stop to get some fresh air, and packed a snack to have on the walk home, we wouldn’t think of our partner in such a negative light.

But the truth is that if we don’t do these self-care metrics, we wouldn’t be happy anyway. On the couch or sweeping the floor. It has to start with us.

This is why we should wait some time, preferably two weeks, before deciding to make any significant changes in our relationship. Over time, the other interfering components in the dynamic (such as related to sleep, hunger and irritability) will (hopefully) disappear, and eventually, we will be able to better understand the role of the component we want to make a change on (our partner, the house, for example). Is it really our partner that’s making us unhappy, or is it something else? 

Oftentimes, it is the latter – specifically that we are not taking proper care of ourselves. Yet it is easier to assign blame to another component than to find it in ourselves. 

Start with you. We’re the easiest thing we can change. And it’s more fun to be around someone who takes care of themselves, too.

Never underestimate the power of self-care in changing the weight of components we bring into our dynamic with others.



Through understanding the foundations of emotions, we can come to be more effective in our interactions with others. The feeling we get in any one event is based on the sum of the components that make up that event. This includes the ways we feel inside and the events that are occurring around us. 

The sensations we associate with unique components come from our experiences with them. For example, if we had a bad memory in a forest before, a forest may evoke anxiety. Yet if we feel generally at peace there, it may be associated with a feeling of comfort. 

The feeling we get in any circumstance is determined in a similar way to machine learning. This consists of the weighting and grouping of things together to derive a conclusion of what we should feel in that circumstance. As an aside, this is why forms of deep learning are called “neural networks” – they are based on the processes of our minds. 

A large and unrecognized component driving our experiences is the way we feel inside. This is determined by if we sleep enough, eat well, and exercise, to name a few. By taking care of ourselves, we can bring more positive components into interactions to make them more enjoyable. And because emotions are largely contagious due to mirror neurons, we can help to create joy in others through this. 

Mirror neurons are a shortcut to understanding emotion in others. The need to understand these emotions is likely why our brains are so big, for this takes an enormous cognitive load regardless. But by understanding how they work, we can remember to model what we want to see in others, especially in times of conflict. This knowledge is ingrained in us based on the ways we treat babies when they cry. 

Finally, by understanding how emotions are experienced as components, we can see trauma and memory in a new light. We can understand trauma as an associated feeling we wouldn’t normally put with a specific component. When this hinders our ability to lead our lives, it can be diagnosed as a disorder. By remembering that memory is dynamic and based on the associated feelings we have for each component, we can be more flexible in our judgement. Change the perspective, and the memories may change with it. Look for the good, and you will see it.

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