The Science Behind Emotional Intelligence

Emily A. Sterrett, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2014 by Emily A. Sterrett

Published by:

HRD Press, Inc.

22 Amherst Road

Amherst, MA 01002


ISBN 978-1-61014-323-3

The Science Behind Emotional Intelligence

The Case for an Emotional Brain

Emotions are not just a matter of the heart. Recent advances in research have shown that they are also a result of brain biochemistry. These conclusions come from neuroscience, evolution, medicine, psychology, and management. Emotional signals in the brain are felt throughout the body—in the gut, in the heart, in the head, in the neck, and so on. These sensations are important signals: if we learn to read them, they will help us make decisions and initiate action.

Most scientists believe that the control center of emotions in the brain is the limbic system, consisting of the amygdala, the hippocampus, and other structures in the mid-brain. The limbic system stores every experience we have from the first moments of life: impressions are stored in these areas long before we acquire the verbal or higher thinking abilities to put them into words. It is this vast warehouse of feelings and impressions that provides a context or meaning for those memories.

Messages are transmitted to the brain by neurons, traveling through an electrical transmission system. In the 1970s, however, scientists discovered that our bodies also contain a chemical system for transmitting messages. This system is based on chemicals called peptides, which have receptors in every cell of our bodies. These highly sensitive information substances are thought to be the chemical substrates of emotion, triggering impression memories throughout our lives. Our brains are linked to all our body systems, and it is these peptides that are responsible for the emotions we “feel” in various parts of our bodies.

This chemical transmission system just described is far, far older in evolutionary history than the electrical brain. In fact, many of the same information substances found in humans are found in one-celled animals. Their presence in the most basic as well as the most complex forms of life is a clear indication of their importance.


The Three Layers of the Brain

Evolution of the Brain: Three Functional Layers

Very, very early in evolutionary history, simple “beings” had brainstems that regulated autonomic function and kept them alive. Human beings still have a brainstem, located just above the spinal cord, which tells our lungs to breathe and our hearts to beat. Similar in architecture to the brainstem of reptiles, the human brainstem is sometimes called the reflex brain or the first brain. We can summon it to conscious awareness, although it usually functions automatically.

The limbic system or emotional brain is thought to have developed out of the first brain. It helps us store and remember past experiences and learn from them. The limbic system in humans is located in the approximate center of the brain; when information enters the limbic system, we experience bodily sensations, transmitted by the peptides or chemical information substances, in the form of a “reaction” to the stimulus with much more awareness of what is happening than at the level of the first brain.

Out of this limbic system came the rational (thinking) brain or thin cortex. The cortex enables us to comprehend sensory information and plan accordingly. The very thin outermost layer of the cortex called the neocortex is responsible for higher order thinking and symbolic communication, art and ideas, and long-term planning. The millions or billions of connections between the limbic brain and the thinking brain allow for the free-flow of information between these layers.

What the Three Brain Layers Do

The first brain (brain stem) is the seat of autonomic or automatic response, as well as the seat of habits. It connects us to our external world through our skin, our pores, and our nerves. It controls what impulses get recognized and passed along to the two higher levels. This brain learns through imitation, avoidance, and repetition until something becomes habitual. Information usually enters at this point without our conscious awareness. We can make much of this information conscious and use it to our benefit, as biofeedback and hypnosis have shown us.

The emotional brain (limbic system) helps us know what things to approach and what to avoid by guiding our preferences. As we move through life and have more experiences, we have stronger intuitions, hunches, and gut reactions because more things are stored in the limbic warehouse. We have “learned” from experience. Intuition is emotional learning gained over many years; a 14 year old has little intuition because he or she has not experienced enough life to make connections between experiences. As we mature, we accumulate more reliable emotional data that can offer us valuable clues and guide our behavior, providing we become aware of its existence and learn how to interpret it. Unfortunately, many adults have been taught to ignore this type of information.

The rational brain (neocortex) assists us with functions related to thinking and language: planning, questioning, making decisions, solving problems, and generating new ideas. This layer is connected to the emotional brain with millions of connections, allowing the emotional and the thinking brains to influence one another in a myriad of ways and providing rich data on which to draw conclusions and initiate action.

Our emotions have helped us immeasurably over the course of human evolution. Emotional responses are milliseconds faster than cognitive (thinking) responses; the lightning-fast reactions that bypass the rational brain centers were often survival responses for our distant ancestors. The limbic brain sends us the warning of a crisis before the rational brain can even process the incoming signal: the body has been alerted and is ready to act on our behalf.

The emotional brain was conserved for a purpose. Today, physical survival is less of a threat than it was to primitive man, but data from the emotional brain still gives us important clues to our surroundings and the actions we need to take. Ignoring this data on purpose or because we aren’t aware of it leaves us with only partial information. One of the purposes of this book is to show how emotions can be used to maximum effect without getting out of control.

Research on Emotional Intelligence

Here are some additional conclusions from evolutionary science:

Neuroscience Research

New maps of brain circuitry tell us that the brain is affected by our emotions in two ways: first, signals travel from the first brain to the rational brain and then back to the emotional brain whenever we mull something over for a while and become increasingly angry, determined, or hurt. The “mulling over” allows us to receive more precise data, and this leads to good decision making and more effective actions.

The second pathway is the route the signal takes as it travels to the emotional brain before going to the rational brain. This occurs when there is an immediate and powerful recognition of a specific experience as the emotional brain makes an association with some past event; we react strongly to something without really knowing why.

The brain seems to have one memory system for ordinary facts and another for emotionally charged events. Emotional events appear to open additional neural pathways that make them stronger in our minds, which may explain why we never forget significant events. Occasionally we are propelled into action on the basis of these few rough signals before we get confirmation from the thinking brain. We have a rational brain that keeps us from being overpowered by strong emotional reactions, but the emotional brain should not be completely overshadowed by the rational one. The key is balance.

Additional conclusions from neuroscience:

Medical Research

The medical laboratory also provides us with clues about how emotions operate in our brains and bodies. Consider these examples:

Our rational minds give us information about people and things, yet preferences and why we have them are based on the limbic brain’s storage of emotions. Without access to that information, we are unable to make even the simplest of decisions because all choices are equal. Emotions are always present in our lives, whether we recognize them or not.

Research in Psychology

Evidence for the importance of emotions comes from the field of psychology, too. Here are some important findings:

These findings are particularly relevant in the workplace, where stress can affect the environment as well as performance. Humans are complex “wholes,” programmed to respond emotionally. No one can perform their jobs apart from their emotions, but excess stress is particularly disruptive to smooth functioning, and it makes concentrated, rational thinking very difficult. “Emotionally intelligent” individuals harness these emotions and use them appropriately.

Management Science and Leadership Studies

Much evidence of Emotional Intelligence comes out of organizations: studies of leadership, management, and performance have, like laboratory research, produced much exciting new information. Here are some interesting findings:

We make better decisions when we act on information from our feelings, our instincts, and our intuition, as well as on information coming from our rational intellect. It is our emotional brains, after all, that allows us to access memory and assign weight or preference to the choices we face at work and in our personal lives. It is our Emotional Intelligence that guides us in controlling or accessing emotions when we must adapt to change, get along with others, or deal with stress. Performance and leadership in any organizational setting are both influenced by EQ.