What part of your brain helps you forgive a friend?

Danial Asadolahi
1 May 2018

Above: Image © mik38, iStockPhoto.com

Imagine that you’ve just had an argument with a good friend from school. A little later, memories of the mean things your friend said to you during the argument replay themselves in your head. This upsets you!

You want to feel better. The part of your brain that has an important role in helping you do this is called the prefrontal cortex. Let’s learn more about it.

What is the prefrontal cortex?

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is found in the front part of your brain and is part of the cortex. Research in psychology and brain science has linked the PFC to a wide variety of functions. You’re using your prefrontal cortex in all of these different activities:

  • Planning all the steps for a big school project
  • Generating a hypothesis for an experiment in science class
  • Using flexible thinking to solve a difficult math problem
  • Deciding what to wear
  • Following a friend’s feedback on how to beat a difficult level in a video game

Scientific research has also shown a connection between the PFC region of the brain and our ability to regulate certain emotions.

What is emotional regulation?

At this point, you might be asking, “What exactly does regulating our emotions mean?” Some psychologists and scientists who study emotions define emotional regulation as the “process by which individuals influence which emotion they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express them” (Cavanagh et al., 2017) [italics added by author].

Let's look at an example of this. You probably feel joy (which emotion) when you’re hanging out with friends (when you feel the emotion). You also know that it’s okay to let yourself feel very high levels of joy when having fun with your friends (influencing how you experience the emotion). Finally, you know that you can laugh and smile to show you’re experiencing joy among friends (the how you express the emotions).

Similarly, let’s think of that argument with your friend. You might display some anger (which emotion) during the argument(when you feel the emotion). You might keep your anger levels in check (affecting how you experience the emotion) and might display the anger you’re feeling by scowling, (the expression of the emotion).

What does it look like when a person doesn’t regulate their emotions? Imagine if you heard about your favourite sports team’s victory while you were in class. It would be appropriate to feel happy. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to jump up and down in happiness in the middle of a lesson!

Did you know?: Problems with emotional regulation can play a role in depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

How can we regulate emotional reactions?

One technique all of us can use to regulate emotional reactions is called reappraisal. This is a process where we change the way we view something in order to change the way that that it impacts us emotionally. Typically, during the reappraisal process, we adopt a more positive view of something. As a result, we end up feeling better.

What’s happening in your PFC?

Scientists believe that when you reappraise a situation, a specific region in the prefrontal cortex called your medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is activated. Studies done with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that there is increased oxygen flowing to this brain region when a person reappraises.

Let’s return to that argument with a good friend from school. Imagine you have that argument in the morning. Later that day, you remember a really mean thing that your friend said to you during the argument. This memory is the stimulus that makes you upset. If you choose to reappraise the situation, your mPFC becomes activated. You might remember more positive things about your friend: for example, that you have had a lot of good times together. In this way, you move yourself away from feeling upset. You end up with a more positive appraisal of the situation.

Summing up…

The prefrontal cortex of the human brain is a brain region that has a number of different useful functions. One of these functions is emotional regulation, specifically a technique called reappraisal. Reappraisal is when you adopt a different way of looking at a situation. Typically, it’s a more positive way of looking at it. Scientific studies show that the mPFC is involved in reappraisal.

So, the next time you change your view of something negative in your life and end up feeling better, remember to thank your prefrontal cortex!

Did you know? There is evidence suggesting that the prefrontal cortex is also involved in personality expression. People with damage to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) report being more anxious and less self-disciplined.

The prefrontal cortex
Above: The prefrontal cortex.
Image © Wikimedia Commons

Learn More!

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (2015)

Let’s Talk Science

Oppositional defiant disorder is better conceptualized as a disorder of emotional regulation (2017)

Cavanagh, D. Quinn, D. Duncan, T. Graham & L. Balbuena, Journal of Attention Disorders 21.

Prefrontal cortex and executive functions in healthy adults: A meta-analysis of structural neuroimaging studies (2014).

Yuan & N. Raz, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 42.

The role of executive function and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the expression of neuroticism and conscientiousness (2014)

C.E. Forbes et al. Social Neuroscience 9.

How Do Children Learn to Regulate Their Emotions? (2013)

Barish, Huffington Post

Emotional processing in anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex (2011)

Etkin, T. Egner & R. Kalisch, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15.

The functional neuroanatomy of reappraisal: Time matters (2009).

Kalisch, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 33.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (2004).

P.M. Matthews & P. Jezzard, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 75

Prefrontal cortex (1988)

J.M. Fuster, Comparative Neuroscience and Neurobiology

Danial Asadolahi

I'm from Vancouver, B.C. and am currently working towards my doctoral degree in psychology at Adler University in Vancouver. I've been interested in science from a young age, and strongly believe that a science-based education is key to the health and happiness of human societies worldwide. My scientific interests are broad, ranging from biology and physics to the social sciences (particularly psychology, economics, and sociology). My hope as a volunteer author with Let's Talk Science is to do my best to educate young minds about the wonderful activity that is science, and help increase their scientific understanding of various phenomena.

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