Emotional Psychology – The Psychology Behind Body Language

Stefan Speaks

Stefan Speaks


Hi and welcome to yet another chapter on psychology and body language. In this third section we will talk about emotions.

No, we won’t spill our hearts and cry about it, but instead dissect them scientifically. I want you to have a better understanding of what happens in your brain and your body when you experience emotions. 

I must warn you in advance that we’ll focus mostly on negative and more “basic” emotions. Not because love and happiness are less important to understand, but simply because scientists  know much less about them.Fear or anger have a more unique characteristics which makes them easier to understand and their particular purpose in our survival. Consequently, such emotions are easier to test and analyze than something more complex such as the experience of joy.

So first of all, we need to differentiate between emotions and feelings in the context of biological science – feelings are your conscious subjective experience of an emotion – it’s how you consciously grasp what’s happening to you.

Emotions on the other hand are physiological responses, which can be either positive or negative to a certain situation. They are structured patterns which we can divide into to 3 main aspects:

Behavioral Response – What sort of actions and expressions it involves.

In simple words – it’s the nonverbal communication that accompanies that particular emotion; usually it’s the most intuitive aspect because it’s plain to see and familiar. 

Autonomic Response – How your sympathetic or parasympathetic systems are activated.

Hormonal Response – Which hormones are secreted and which state they facilitate or maintain. 

What’s important to understand is that these responses are combined and congruent – they supplement each other and as a whole create the image and the subjective feeling of the emotion. 

Before we get to the actual emotions and their mechanism, we have to introduce 2 parts in the brain that play a critical role in determining how you react:

The Amygdala and The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (vmPFC)

Don’t be afraid of the big names! I know they sound scary, but let me introduce these parts of the brain in a friendly way:

Both the Amygdala and the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (vmPFC from now on) have a variety of functions in our behavior and character, but most importantly, they organize the way we perceive, learn and regulate our emotions – which is our main subject here. 

You can think of the Amygdala as your most neurotic and emotionally unstable friend – it’s attuned to threats (imagined or real) and other negative emotions like fear and anger. Some view it as part of the reptilian brain – a basic part that was developed early in our evolution and was essential to our early survival as a species.

Although it has a negative image – the amygdala is critical to our survival, because it:

  • Drives us to get food and minerals essential to our metabolism.
  • Enables us to identify threats and decide whether to get away from them, or fight them.
  • Urges us to care for our young and weak.
  • Develops our sex drive which leads to reproduction and the survival of our species as a whole.
AMYGDALAAll that in this tiny part of your brainImage Source

The other big player here is the vmPFC – which is more of your rational, stable and responsible guy. It’s involved in many processes of decision making and emotional regulation, and has a huge part to play in your moral sense and judgment.

Note: yes, you heard that right; your moral compass is mainly influenced by your emotions, not rational thought! As much as we like to think of ourselves as calculated and logical beings – most of our actions are driven by emotional impulses, and when they malfunction – so is our moral sense and sensitivity.

The interaction between the vmPFC and your Amygdala determines much of your attitudes and actions, and ideally it’s best to have a certain balance between them.

You want your alarm to go on when you see a threat (the amygdala’s job), but you also would like to apply some self restraint to figure out what is best course of action (the vmPFC job).

So, now that we know with whom we’re dealing with, it’s time to get to the emotions themselves:


As you can already imagine, the part that’s responsible for the organization of fear in your brain is the Amygdala. It collects input from the environment about possible threats, processes it and immediately pulls out the emergency kit to deal with the situation: the behavioral, hormonal and autonomic response.

Autonomic Reaction

When you feel fear – the sympathetic system is activated by the Amygdala and your body arms itself for full action. Your heart races, your pupils dilate, your muscles tighten, the energy reserves floods from the stores of your body and becomes available for immediate use, and all the unnecessary systems shut down – you become a super version of yourself, with a taxing price to your body.

We talked about the autonomous nervous system before, so you know it’s independent, it doesn’t asks you what you think it should do, but acts on its own accord.

This is especially evident when someone has a terror attack (scary name, I know). In this case the person suddenly experiences deep unknown and confusing fear, it really happens out of the blue. The cause to this deep fear is the full activation of the sympathetic system (the reason for its activation isn’t always justified- it can trigger after some strenuous activity for example).

Luckily, such experiences are over quite fast – it takes about half an hour for the sympathetic system to shut down and return everything to normal. So next time you experience extreme nervousness – have a comfort in the thought that it’ll pass soon on its own, (unless, of course, there is an actual death threatening scenario!).

The Hormonal Reaction

Norepinephrine, Epinephrine (Adrenaline) and Cortisol play a big part in preparing your body to action. I won’t elaborate here, because we already talked about them. 


In animals it’s known as the 

Freeze Flight or Fight response

A limited selection of choices meant to keep you alive through the day. When an animal experience fear, it will either take a defensive position, get ready to run away or will freeze and hope the danger will pass over.

But, when we look at the body language of humans, it’s not always that easy to see and comprehend fear or stress intuitively:

For example, a public speaker can have a fear response to his audience, not because he believes they will hurt him if he performs badly, but because he fears failure and the rejection of his listeners. His body doesn’t really know the difference, and will assume a defensive position to guard his body, he can hide behind his stand, freeze in his place with his nose deep down in his notes or start to fidget as his adrenaline rush urges him to run away or fight.

Learning Fear

We learned about the theory of learning in the previous article, now it’s time to mention that acquiring fears is partially the responsibility of the Amygdala. 

When a new stimulus is accompanied by a natural threat (an inborn fear) – such as unexpected loud noises, large animals, heights or other predisposed fear = we biologically perceive the new stimulus as associated with the threat.

An example is the learned fear of elevators: on their own, elevators are not that scary, but if you had an experience being stuck in one, your helplessness and claustrophobia will kick in, and naturally you will associate such emotions with the elevator ride.

elevator rideCome inside.. it’s completely safe…Image Source

Note: It’s worth mentioning that sometimes the source of the conditioned fear is not so easily identified – you don’t always know or remember why you fear something. This makes the extinction of fear that much harder, and some clinical psychologists work exactly on that, like detectives of the unconscious they try to reveal the hidden source of the problem to help their patient.

Does that mean, that if your amygdala is damaged, you will have less fears?

Yes, it means exactly that! It won’t make you braver, mind you, instead you’ll be more apathetic. You may have lesser chance to get ulcer or a nervous breakdown in your life, but it also means that you can’t realize true danger and take means to avoid it, which naturally leads to more injuries and fatalities.

We also talked about extinction – the process of overcoming fear. When we look at the brain – we have a biological evidence for this process: The vmPFC suppresses the Amygdala! It sends inhibitory (slowing down) signals to the amygdala and regulate its response.

This is why acting bravely is not through the deficit of fear, instead it means having a stronger will to overcome it. People with bigger and well functioning vmPFC prove to have more restraint and courage because they can suppress their aversive behavior (elicited by the amygdala) better.

Anger and Aggression

tiger snarl

Let’s start with a basic yet fundamental question – why we get angry? Wouldn’t be a better world if we learn to control our impulses and live peacefully for eternity? 

Why of course it does, but our world is not a perfect one, animals and plants compete with each other constantly to survive and reproduce. Anger, along with fear, is part of our flight-or-fight response which designed to help us in tight spots, when our survival depends on it.

Anger is a psychological mode meant to energize you and force you to take action. Anger is a catalizator for change, it’s the emotion that gets you out of control and forces you to take action in spite of your fear or other setbacks. 

Aggressive behavior, however, can be proactive – it’s a sort of behavior that used to signal others that you’re willing to fight if needed. In the animal kingdom it’s utilized to threaten others – to keep them away or subdue them.

Naturally, both anger and aggression have very big downsides in social interactions and therefore kept for truly dire necessities – when the life or continuity of the animal are under threat or when they need to compete with others on available territory or mates.

Even when it comes to dire straits, most animals will keep to threats, rather than actually fight. The reason for this is logical: fighting can be hazardous for both combatants, both animals can get hurt or even die in the end result. Accordingly, most animals will often use an aggressive stance only as a tool to subdue or scare the other animal.


It may sound counter intuitive, but the act of predation doesn’t involve emotions of anger or excitement. It’s a cold-blooded kill, the predator isn’t angry at his prey.

Is Aggression in humans a social tool?

You can argue that in humans, acting aggressively is also a tool to climb the social hierarchy ladder or to achieve some other personal gains, and you’ll be right, but it’s a bad strategy if you plan on building long lasting relationships.

Even the stereotypical image of the alpha male as the strongest and biggest member is not always correct: in chimpanzees, the alpha male isn’t necessarily the strongest male, but the one with the strongest social bonds. The leader must be a good politician to get the support of the rest of his tribe by making good alliances. 

So all in all, aggression can be used as a tool to dominate others by fear, but is much less stable and long lasting than relationships built on mutual goals and understanding.

What affects aggression?


So we know what aggression is for, but it still doesn’t answer why we vary in our reactions to similar events. One of the explanation for this difference is found inside our head – neurological and biochemical variations that turns some of us into zen monks and others to raging bulls. 

First of all is the Amygdala vs the PFC (Pre-Frontal Cortex) modulation that I already talked about in the context of fear . Since our amygdala is sensitive to threats, it encourages us to deal with them – by either running from or fighting them. The PFC is the mediator in such cases – it allows us to evaluate the situation and regulate our emotions (it can also enhance them). 

So one theory suggests that in impulsive people this balance of power is shifted towards the Amygdala. There is evidence for this in teenagers, since their amygdala matures earlier in life, whereas the prefrontal cortex later (around the time of puberty), and so teenagers lack the proper “hardware” to deal with their intense emotions.

If we talk about chemicals – then Serotonin is worth mentioning, because this is the neurotransmitter (link) that used in communication from the PFC to the Amygdala. Serotonin is involved in many processes and has a big role in determining your mood, he is also a key component in many antidepressants.

With this in mind, researchers speculated that administered antidepressant might calm impulsive and antisocial behavior. In this study , they found that Prozac (Fluoxetine), that contains Serotonin, actually lowers violent and risky behavior in people who have problems with self control. 

The third “big” player in the modulation emotion of anger is Testosterone, as you might already guessed. Testosterone mainly a male hormone (females also have it, but in smaller amounts) and associated with sex drive, dominance and aggression. This is not a new idea, and it’s one of the reasons why we neuter our pets – to make them more docile.

However, in humans the relation between testosterone and dominance and aggression is not truly clear – we are still not sure whether having more testosterone makes you more aggressive or the other way around, that being more competitive and aggressive causes you to have more testosterone.

Anyway, it is clear that we have correlation between them. Again, it’s especially evident during the puberty of young boys: their testosterone levels are rising and they become more competitive and reckless.

Note: While testosterone is mainly a male hormone it has important roles in the female body too – it affects their sexual interest as well as their aggressiveness and boldness.

These are the main biological factors to consider when it comes to aggression, but they are not the only affecting it. motivation, attitude and life experience also have a huge part to play when it comes to how aggressive we act.

Reasoning and Emotions – Solving Dilemmas

I mentioned earlier that I will discuss how our morals are mainly the result of our emotions. It’s time to fulfill that promise.

Once again I want to return to our familiar friend  – the vmPFC, this part of our brain has a big role to play in our cognitive processes and inhibiting inappropriate behavior.

Gage Dangerous Brain

Note: One of the most famous cases in neuropsychology is that of Phineas Gage . Phineas was a construction worker who had a terrible accident at work – an explosion set a metal rod flying through his head. Phineas survived but had a drastic personality change – from a dutiful hardworking man he became an impulsive irresponsible drunk who lost his job, friends and family. The reason for this shift was the partial destruction of his PFC – he simply lacked the hardware to control his impulses and make rational judgments in his personal life.

We know today that the vmPFc plays a part in how we evaluate problems in our lives and is sort of a counter-balance to the amygdala which encourages us to react impulsively.

What happens when we have to make moral decisions? 

We usually listen to our moral compass, our internal guide that tells us how to act evaluating the situation – this moral “compass” is actually an emotion, elicited by the vmPFC. We feel  bad when we don’t act accordingly to our emotion, and it doesn’t have to be rational.

To test what is the source for our moral judgements scientists compared the judgments of people who had brain injury in their prefrontal cortex vs the judgements of healthy people:

When it came to non-moral decisions such as: “where do you prefer to eat?” there was no difference between the groups.

Even when it came to impersonal but moral decision such as to save one vs to save many – the impaired group made similar choices as the healthy group. It was obvious to all subjects that it’s better to save more lives at the expense of the few. A good example to such dilemma is the trolley problem

 “There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?”

However, the test found difference when it came to personal and moral dilemmas, such dilemmas are quite similar to the moral impersonal example but with one major difference – it involves taking a difficult personal action:

“As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?” 

From a clear rational and numerical perspective, it’s basically the same problem as the first one – you save  either one or five lives. However, for most healthy people the decision to push the fat man to his death is much harder. 

We have a strong bad feeling when we think about doing such moral decision, because we feel personally responsible for the consequence. This is a major thing, and many of us will abstain from taking action, even though we know it may have a price. 

The group with the damaged vmPFC however, have no such problems, from their perspective it’s the same moral dilemma. 

This utilitarian attitude, while might be logical, is actually harmful when it comes to personal life, because other people see things differently.

Many of our decisions are not based on clear logic or judgments, but rather on the way we feel about them. We feel bad when we don’t act upon them.

We may call it conscious and try to rationalize our decisions, but it’s still doesn’t change the fact that emotions have huge impact on our judgements.

People with  abnormal brain activity in areas that regulate emotions – also have abnormalities in their decision making process, what in turn makes their social life much confusing and harder. 

So it’s ok if we’re not completely rational, because we’re irrational in the same way, and we can understand and communicate with each other by our emotions. Sometimes, the rational thing to do, is not so rational when it comes to social interactions.


Featured Articles