A Brain’s Eye View of A Bad Mood
Something happens.. you don’t make a red light, important call doesn’t come in by 5 PM, someone insults you with a smile… Can be any commonplace day in the life occurrence that you may or may not even notice the impact of. Ten minutes later you find it’s actually still bothering you..
The internal dialog ramps up, mind busy going over the injury or injustice or disappointment that just occurred. You go over it in your mind, replaying it, describing just what happened and why it was wrong, imagining all the things you would say to the person to prove to them how they have crossed or hurt you. You feel agitated and worked up, or perhaps you feel dispirited, emptied. And then, at some point, it shifts over from being upset about what happened to a real mood shift. Now you are depressed and that shift has solidified a bad mood that will stay with you for some time, maybe an hour, maybe even a day – and you don’t any longer have to be thinking about it to keep in that bad space. You have settled into a state that has some staying power, and probably is going to be with you for awhile.
Let’s look at this from the perspective of the brain. I will make this allowance- it’s almost impossible to talk about what is happening in the brain and not be simplifying it significantly – so this is a simplification, but let’s look at the types f processes that are going on in the brain to support the scenario we just described.
Perception – eyes and ears take in the actions and sounds that made up the events and they are sorted out into meaning and words and intentions, a lot of it based on past events and ideas about the people and places involved, and all happening in milliseconds without a lot of conscious oversight. (The way you have thought about it before and the way you summarized events into memories – those two things especially, have a tremendous impact on what you will “perceive”.)
Significance – as the instantaneous reactions and interpretations occur you can begin to consciously try to make sense and interpret the meaning of what happened. Different people put different weight on what they are feeling vs., what they are thinking, as well as if they feel they are allowed to stand up for themselves or addicted to stand up for themselves and many other factors.
In our simplified version we might say that at this point the processing splits into two streams; emotional response and meaning. Because as meaning begins to be perceived, emotional responses are instantaneous – and the amount of energy you feel is very influenced by these emotions. This also affects the speed the brain is processing, it may well begin to have various areas that are processing this begin to fire faster and faster in synchrony. And memories begin to surface and be replayed, memories that are tied to these very emotions and more likely to be negative, painful, angry, etc. And in this sphere, this atmosphere, the cognitive apparatus is trying to interpret what is happening and what it means to you. This apparatus is slower than the others we just discussed, and by the time it comes online, it is quite under the sway of all the other processing . It’s possible that you could say to yourself, HOLD ON A SECOND, I AM PRETTY UPSET RIGHT NOW – in which case you might start to calm down, slow down the firing speed, back off from the memories that are running in your head and the words you always say when you have them, and try to get an objective sense of what is happening. But this is work and probably rare. Instead many of us will be carried away by all of this emotional processing, buttressed by the memories that support this negative view, and the cognitive apparatus begins to make negative statements about the person, or your boss, or your luck, building even a bigger feedback loop to the rising emotions, and we are not doing very well.
One outcome would be that the person eventually calms down, emotions subside, memories take their place alongside of other memories that don’t see a terrible life/friend,/etc, and the person returns to a pre upset state of mind/functioning of brain. The other outcome is that the brain, reverberating with fast firing speeds, flooded by negative memories and negative interpretations of those memories, spiraling emotional networks churning out emotions that in turn churn out biochemical change through your body that you can feel, and finally the system has to shut down. Often this takes the form of slipping into a depressed mood, where the whole global functioning of the cortex shifts away from engagement with the world and into withdrawal. Another version is spiraling on and upward into rage or out of control actions, and finally maxing out and crashing, feeling likely miserable, and then slowly beginning the journey back to a balanced state.
I don’t believe that understanding the brain explains the whole story, or describes completely who you are. But I do find it interesting to recognize that there are systems and subsystems in place that definitely affect who we are for the moment and steps in these processes that correlate with specific parts of the brain, or sometimes different parts that are in rhythm together – and understanding that these parts are there would be very helpful to us in understanding the nature of the beast. The one we are dealing with every day in trying to make our lives happy, fun, productive, and have meaning.