The subtle science of how micro-emotions can lead to all-consuming thoughts


Our thoughts are like a private theater and as such they can fascinate us. They are sometimes unpredictable and sometimes on cue. They can surprise us, stimulate us, move us to action and sometimes to tears.

As much as thoughts can trigger emotions, they can also be triggered by them: feelings influence what is shown in our mental theater.

The fleeting images and phrases in our heads make up a good part of our lives. According to some estimates based on brain-state transitions in neuroimaging data, we may have four to eight thoughts per minute.

Even accounting for some periods of fatigue or apathy and many periods spent perceiving sensory input (like reading or listening), several thousand thoughts per day can add up.

Several mental disorders produce changes in thought flow. Manic states, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and anxiety are common Increase thinking speedoften during depression and dementia make it smaller.

spontaneous thoughts

Many thoughts can be classified as spontaneous or involuntary. You come to mind; they don’t feel intentional. Some may be ideas or intuitions relevant to a current situation, intrusive thoughts connected to pursuits, or “free associations” while the mind wanders. Some are Memories of autobiographical memories with some links to recent experiences.

Where do spontaneous thoughts come from? One obvious source is environmental stimulation: the ideas evoked by what we see and hear.

However, spontaneous thoughts often arise when the environment is relatively stable, such as when walking a familiar path or sitting on a bus.

Spontaneous thoughts often emerge from long-term memoryunconscious scraps of words, images, actions and ideas that also evoke dreams.

These mental building blocks are the collective activity of networks of neurons in the brain gray cells whose connections have been strengthened by numerous experiences.

These neural networks are normally inactive, but when stimulated by other brain activity, such as compete for access to consciousness according to their strength.

The competitive strength of networks is influenced by their relevance to our situation, but also to our goals, needs, interests or emotions.

We think about food more easily when we are hungry, but also when we have an important dinner to prepare.

Emotions play a key role in many types of spontaneous thoughts. For example, intrusive thoughts are forced upon us by emotions so we focus on high-priority information like threats, frustrations, or opportunities. Fear often generates intrusive thoughts that indicate threats, real or imagined. Recurrences can occur in post-traumatic stress Flashbacks and ruminations.

While negative emotions cause us to focus on high-priority content, positive emotions seem to facilitate more distant or unusual associations that increase memorization and creativity.

During euphoria — intense happiness or pleasure out of proportion to its causes — intrusive thoughts often involve optimistic expectations and imaginative ideas. passion induced positive spontaneous thoughts.


Even uneventful daily activities involve faint emotions or microemotions such as worry, desire, irritation, stress, surprise, or interest guide many of our thoughts.

Microemotions are brief and often unconscious. They mainly release micro-movements such as muscle tension or micro expressions on the face and they produce small physiological reactions including adrenaline secretion and cardiovascular responses.

Micro-fears often trigger what-if thoughts and Care for maintaining the fear through a positive feedback loop; this in turn can be a source of insomnia. Desires regularly activate thoughts such as goals, desires, and topics of conversation.

Microemotions of guilt or pride are triggered moral intuitions the anticipated rejection or approval of others, which are essential to developing prosocial behaviors such as cooperation, helpfulness, and other behaviors that benefit others. Microemotions of boredom or cravings for stimulation can trigger distraction or mind wandering and may be underlying some symptoms of attention deficit.

Microemotions influence our thoughts in a multitude of possibilities. They divert our attention from their present object, they sensitize perceptual systems to perceive things related to their dominant subject, and they facilitate recall of memories relevant to that subject. Microemotions themselves are triggered by an often unconscious perception or idea significant enough to subtly activate emotional systems.

The amygdala

Emotions can activate spontaneous thoughts through multiple circuits in the brain centered on a node called the amygdala. This node has access to our drives and desires, which are activated in the lower parts of our frontal lobe. It can interpret and influence the emotional meaning of perceptions or recalled memories.

The amygdala hub also activates the enhancer of the brain in the brainstem, which supply the gray matter with neuromodulators such as adrenaline and serotonin. These systems increase the level of neural activity and direct it to the subject that matches the emotion.

When the evoked thought itself evokes emotion, a self-perpetuating loop between thought and emotion is created, which is stopped by either distraction or cognitive processes.

Spontaneous thoughts are essentially motivated thoughts: every minute, feelings nudge our attention, inner voice, and mental theater in a certain direction.

Better control of stress levels, emotions, and daily experiences can improve the quality of these spontaneous thoughts and the resulting happiness.

Francois RicherProfessor, Neuropsychology, Université du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM).

This article is republished by The conversation under a Creative Commons license. read this original article.


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