The Science of Emotional Intelligence


If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t think when you’re feeling emotional, or how to get your brain working when you’re in an emotional state, or even why going for a walk seems to calm you down…  Well, rest assured, there are real answers to all of these questions. They all have to do with the way our brain is built.

The good news is that you can learn to activate your intellectual brain while you’re in an emotional state. It’s literally a series of steps. Come with us, while we explore the neuroscience of emotional intelligence.

The Emotional Limbic System

The “Emotional Brain” is one of the three main brain systems proposed by neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. Dr. MacLean is responsible for coining the term “Limbic System” which is a collection of brain regions that affect emotions. 

The limbic system is made of 4 or 5 (people argue!) brain regions; two of which are highly tied to emotions: 

  • Amygdala: Controls our instantaneous emotional responses. Encourages acting without thinking.
  • Thalamus: responsible for emotion processing such as fear, sadness, disgust, happiness, and pleasure. 

Other limbic system regions are tied to memory and learned response, which of course play a role in interpreting whether events warrant emotions, and how we might react without thinking.

Why can’t I control my emotions?

Human beings have disappointed themselves for eons trying to control their emotions. Here’s the secret to controlling your emotions: you can’t.  We have emotions, we don’t control them.  The limbic system sits on top of our brain stem. We experience limbic arousal before the thinking part of our brain ever activates. Of course, you can to some extent control your response to emotions.

Why doesn’t my brain work when I’m emotional?

You know how people say we don’t use all of our brain? That’s totally not true at all. We use almost all of our brain, just not at the same time.  If your whole brain lights up, you have a seizure and you fall down. When one section of our brain is very active it uses most of the blood flowing into your brain. Other brain areas get less blood and become, literally, de-energized. 

When we are very emotional, the limbic system displays a lot of increased blood flow and electrical activity, while other regions reflect a measurable reduction.  When your emotional brain is in high gear, It takes energy from your “thinking brain” and makes it hard to do anything remotely approaching “Smart”. That’s why it’s hard to think when you’re emotionally elevated. 

Thinking Brain?

The part of your brain that experiences conscious thought is the prefrontal cortex. Among other things, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision making and “executive function”. Executive function includes the ability to differentiate among conflicting thoughts and suppress actions that might lead to unacceptable social outcomes—a good thing when we’re highly emotional. 

The prefrontal cortex is around 4% of our brain and is the most energy-hungry brain area. If you’re doing anything else at a heightened state, your thinking brain doesn’t work very well. Emotions, intense physical activities, fear,  and strong hunger are great examples of brain activities that make it hard to think. 

So, what can I do about it?

The good news is that activating any other part of your brain de-energizes the limbic system in the same way that your limbic system de-energizes the rest of your brain.  We’ve all seen this happen when we’re upset and we go for a walk. The motor cortex activates and our emotions de-energize.

Emotional intelligence “self-management” techniques mostly revolve around step-by-step processes anyone can use to activate the prefrontal cortex while emotional. 

So, by  activating the prefrontal cortex, we deactivate the limbic system,  and we can think. When our emotional brain is not hijacking our decisions, we are capable of the “intelligent” part of emotional intelligence.   

One of the real-world tools we use in our Emotional Intelligence workshops is a 3-step process designed to activate your prefrontal cortex before deciding on an action.

It works like this:

  1. Name the emotion you are feeling.
    When we intentionally stop and name the feeling we’re feeling, what we’re really doing is getting other parts of our brain working. This slightly de-energizes the limbic system by activating language centers. Naming the emotion also makes sure that we are dealing with our emotions instead of suppressing them. The first step to dealing with an emotion is recognizing that you’re actually having it.
  2. Ask yourself a question to kick-start thought
    Questions start and direct thinking. Remember, the goal of emotional intelligence is to get our “thinking brain” working. Common thought-provoking questions include:
  • Is this the only feeling I could be feeling right now?
  • What information is left out?
  • What don’t I know about this situation?
  • What else could be going on?
  • What reasonable explanation could this other person have for acting like this?
  • What am I not thinking about right now?

Usually it’s a good idea to choose one of the above questions and memorize it so you’ll have it when you need it. Go ahead! 

  1. Ask, “What could I do that I’ll be proud of later?”
    Now that your prefrontal cortex is running you can finally make an intelligent decision. Many of us have made decisions that we were proud of in the moment, but we regretted later. The best decisions are ones that we are proud of later. 

So, now what?

So, the next time you find yourself in the emotional danger zone try the three steps to scientifically turn on your intelligent brain.

  1. Name the feeling you’re feeling.
  2. Ask a question to stimulate thought.
  3. Ask yourself what you can do that you’ll be proud of later. 

If you’re like us, you’ll probably screw it up the first couple times you try it and things will still turn out better than they would have otherwise. And, it will feel great. That’s the feeling of wisdom.

While you're here, why not book a workshop for your team today?

View All Coursestalk to us