Chemistry of Emotions

What do you think of when you hear the word “chemistry?” You might think of a mad scientist pouring liquid into a flask and causing an eruption of foam in multiple colors! If you are watching TV or a movie, chemistry is often shown in this way. It can be fun, explosive, and unpredictable! However, chemistry happens in unnoticed ways every day, even in your own body. Even though we don’t see the chemical reactions that happen in our bodies, those reactions can have a monumental effect on our day-to-day life.

Flesch Kincaid Score: 60.2 Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 7.6
"steve-spangler-on-the-ellen-degeneres-show-with-elephants-toothpaste-2010102900" by Poughkeepsie Day School is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Table of Contents

What are chemicals?

Chemicals are everywhere. A few that you see every day include water, vinegar, and salt. Chemicals are any substance made of elements, according to the NIH National Cancer Institute. Think of elements as building blocks with different qualities. Some blocks are square. Some are rectangular. Some are triangles or trapezoids. These elements can fit together in many different ways to form unique chemicals.

Chemicals can be composed of anything, from gases to metals. That is a wide spread of possibilities! Because of this, they have many unique jobs, including powering our bodies. Chemicals are essential to life.

What do chemicals do in the body?

Your body is constantly organizing processes to keep you feeling good and healthy. For example, we are able to digest food because of chemicals called stomach acids. Stomach acids are able to break down food so the nutrients can be used to give your body energy.

Have you ever heard of brain chemistry? The brain is another place where chemicals act to make our bodies function properly. In fact, your emotions are balanced by chemical processes happening in your brain.

How do chemicals in the brain affect my emotions?

Your brain is the original computer. It has tons of parts and pieces that work together to send messages, solve problems, learn, and form memories. But one thing that sets the brain apart from a computer is emotion. There are many chemicals found throughout the body that help the brain to respond to situations with specific emotions. Some of these chemicals are called neurotransmitters.

Let’s break down that word. “Neuro” relates to the brain and the nervous system. A transmitter sends messages. So, neurotransmitters are chemicals that send messages throughout the brain and nervous system.

Those messages are sent between brain cells. Brain cells receive a signal from a neurotransmitter and send it along to other brain cells. In this way, messages are sent quickly throughout the brain so your body can respond to different situations.

"Signaling in Neurons" by National Institutes of Health (NIH
"Signaling in Neurons" by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

What are some examples of neurotransmitters that help to balance your emotions?

Some of the most common neurotransmitters are dopamine, epinephrine, GABA, and serotonin. Let’s learn more about each one.

Dopamine and serotonin help to balance your mood. Both of these neurotransmitters are important to emotions like happiness. Dopamine sends “reward” signals in your brain. For example, if you walk past a bakery and smell your favorite dessert, some of your brain cells may release dopamine in expectation of tasting that dessert. Serotonin not only relates to happiness, but also calmness.

So, what happens if your body does not have enough dopamine or serotonin? You may feel sad, anxious, or stressed. But these neurotransmitters do much more than balance your mood. They also relate to digestion, sleep, and even memory. One chemical can have many effects on your body’s function.

Epinephrine is another neurotransmitter that is involved in processes related to stress, fear, and anger. Have you heard of the “fight or flight” response? When danger is near, epinephrine levels rise, making you more alert. Stress responses are very important in our bodies because they relate to our mood as well as processes like breathing and blood flow.

GABA is also related to stress. It can help to make you feel calm, because it stops your brain cells from being too active. When your brain cells receive a GABA signal, you might feel less stressed and less anxious. Without GABA, your brain cells are active and increase stress responses in your body.

Neurotransmitters
Created with Canva.com

Do other living things have emotions?

Humans are not the only living beings with emotions. If you have a pet cat or dog, they experience emotions similar to yours. They can feel stressed and anxious. But they can also feel happy and rewarded. That’s why dogs get excited when they hear the word “treat,” and cats become more alert when they see a squirrel running outside. In fact, many animals across the animal kingdom experience a wide variety of emotions.

Not all animals have emotions. For instance, jellyfish have no brain and experience no emotions. The same is true for sea anemones. However, most animals do experience emotions in a very similar way to humans. Our emotions bring us closer together and show us that tiny chemicals can have a big impact on our bodies.

Jellyfish
"Jellyfish" by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Glossary

Chemical – any substance made of elements

Elements – building blocks of chemicals

Neurotransmitter – a chemical that sends messages throughout the brain and nervous system

Examples: Dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and GABA

Flesch Kincaid Score: 60.2

Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level: 7.6

Sources

Contributors

  • Tess Bub
    : Author
    Tess Taggart Bub has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a minor in data science from Houghton College. During her undergraduate studies, she conducted research in the areas of climate science, ecology, and muscle biology. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center studying host cellular response to viral infection. She is a strong believer that science can change the world, especially when it’s shared. In her free time, she loves communicating science, playing guitar and piano, and running. Writing for smore gives Tess the opportunity to help inspire a new generation of women in STEM.

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


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