Home » The Neuroscience of Emotions by Dr. Phillippe Goldin (Full Transcript)

The Neuroscience of Emotions by Dr. Phillippe Goldin (Full Transcript)

Dr. Phillippe Goldin

Topic: The Neuroscience of Emotions 

Speaker: Dr. Phillippe Goldin

Event: Google Tech Talks, September 16, 2008


Chade-Meng Tan – Owner, Search Inside Yourself Program

Hello. Good afternoon, my friends. My name is Meng, and I’m the owner of the Search Inside Yourself Program in Google, or the S.I.Y. Program.

S.I.Y. is Google’s home-grown emotional intelligence– sorry– home-grown, mindfulness-based emotional intelligence course, and we hope someday to make this course accessible to the whole world. This lecture will become part of the content for the S.I.Y. course in the future.

And I’m delighted today to introduce my dear friend and S.I.Y. instructor Philippe Goldin. Philippe heads the clinic— Let me get this– Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience Group in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. He spent six years in India and Nepal studying various languages. I don’t actually know how many languages he speaks, but it’s, like, more than three. And he studied Buddhist philosophy and debate at various monasteries.

And then he returned to the US to complete a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Rutgers University. His research focuses on function and neuroimaging investigations of cognitive, affective mechanisms.

The effect of mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavior therapy, and the effect of parent-child mindfulness meditation training. And, oh, by the way, he’s also a meditation teacher, in case you missed that.

And in person I find Philippe to be very smart, very capable, and very compassionate. And I’m very happy he’s my friend. He’s just amazing. And my friends, please welcome Philippe Goldin.

Philippe Goldin – Head, CAAN, Stanford University

Very nice. Okay. So, it’s an honor to be here. And I know that everyone is very busy, so I really appreciate that you are here. Let’s begin.

So, yes, I’m going to speak about the neuroscience of emotions. And, yes, I do come from an academic background, and also a practice background. And just to be really clear, the intention for today is to give you a brief introduction to a little bit about what we understand about the neuroscience and how the brain works with respect to emotions, emotion regulation, emotion intelligence.

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But it’ll be brief because we only have a short time. And this obviously — We should start with some history.


So, Darwin, speaking about emotions, made it very clear that animals need emotions to survive. So do we. They need fear as a trigger to escape predators, and aggression to defend their territory, their young, and food.

Emotions– He believed that emotions are really maintained from our animal past in the trajectory of evolution of human animals. And that we really rely on different emotions in different ways to make quick, often complex, decisions.

So why do we have emotions?

As you can see here, just looking at this photograph, just notice where your attention goes. Notice what you see. So, from multiple decades of research on emotions, we know that there are several functions. One way–emotions help to direct our attention. It helps to enhance our memory and how we actually encode and consolidate different pieces of information. Especially for information that’s personally salient.

It also helps us to organize our behavior and our orientation towards other people. Specifically how we drive– It helps to drive and direct social approach or even social avoidance. And, probably most importantly for this group, and for the course– the Search Inside Yourself course, is that different emotions and the way our learning history with emotions really helps to develop moral and ethical behavior.

When emotions — and the brain is functioning well, it can be an incredibly adaptive system, meaning that emotions bring richness to our experience, how we interact with people, how we interact with ourselves.

When emotions are dysregulated, out of control, exaggerated, this can lead to things like anxiety, depression, burn-out, even suicide. So this is really a very important aspect of the human experience.

Classes of emotion

There are different classes of emotion. So, researchers have talked about six primary or basic emotions. They are happiness– as you can see– Happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger. And you can check your own experience as we go through this talk to see how this aligns with what you’ve experienced in yourself.

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There’s also kind of a background sense of emotion or mood– Moods are long-term, emotions are more punctate or short, acute. So they talk often about wellbeing versus malaise. A sense of calm versus a sense of tension. Feelings of pain, emotional and physical, in contrast to pleasure.

And then, importantly, especially for social animals like human beings, all of us, there’s a whole other realm of social emotions that are in contrast to the primary. And this really has to do with interpersonal interaction, so emotions that arise like embarrassment, jealousy, guilt, shame, sense of pride. So this is a rough sketch of the different kinds of emotions.

Now, emotions are obviously expressed. One of the most powerful, ubiquitous ways is through our facial expressions. So these are the six primary emotions and the facial expressions of those emotions. As you can see. And apparently, in the English language, there are over 600 words to describe different emotions, and on your face there are 42 different muscles that work together to express, very subtly, different emotional expressions.

And Paul Ekman from U.C. San Francisco, emeritus professor, actually came up with a facial action coding system to actually delineate what muscle groups need to arise in order to make different emotional expressions. So there’s a whole science behind all of this. It’s not only an American or a North American emotional expression thing. In fact, lots of research by Paul Ekman and other people have shown that the identification of different facial expressions is cross-cultural, as you can see, and there’s a very high rate of consensus across different cultures, different backgrounds, about what constitutes happiness, sadness, disgust, and so forth.

Another very important purpose for studying emotions is that emotions are truly, if you think about it, and check your own experience– are an important source of information and feedback that help to direct our behavior and also our social interactions.

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So you can think, how often do we use a gut feeling or a gut instinct or kind of an intuition to make a quick decision? And, in fact, I would suggest that if you check your experience, this is happening many times per day. So emotions are really contributing to cognitive processes. Thinking, reasoning, decision making.

Now, we know that here, in the brain, when a person has a lesion, right, the absence of a– be it a tumor or some kind of disease, we know that frontal lobe lesions often result in impaired emotional awareness. Which goes along with impairment in social reasoning or interpersonal problems, and also problems making decisions.

So we know that there’s a direct connection between the functions of brain systems and different aspects of emotion and their sequelli. Emotions really exist on a range. I’m stating the obvious. From a normal sense of emotions, and then the extreme forms of those emotions. So I would posit that sadness, which is a very normal human experience, in its extreme, can lead to major depression. Can be a very important component of major depression.

Anger, which also is a very normal human emotion, when it reaches an extreme or an exaggerated form, can become unprovoked aggression. An angry orientation in all of our social interactions. Pleasure. Again, normal. In its extreme, it can lead to addiction. Fear, which of course, is appropriate in dangerous situations as a protective mechanism, in its exaggerated form, can lead to anxiety, different kinds of phobias, even panic attacks or panic disorder.

And worry, in itself, when it’s out of control, and when it’s extreme, can lead to generalized anxiety disorder. So we can really appreciate that the emotions shift and move along a continuum from normal to extreme.

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