Reining In Your Id
by Caitlin Gilbert | Georgetown University
College romance, for the most part, is fleeting, at best. Casual hookups, one-night stands, and, if you’re lucky, the occasional date, comprise the “romantic” norm on campuses. Many attribute the punctuated-equilibrium-style of love to a lack of time or desire to “have fun” without commitment. While both factors might contribute to the phenomenon, the issue involves a much more substantive element: emotion.
Amongst college students (and likely any member of Generation Z), sarcasm often trumps sincerity. Though we scoff at the hilarity of the counter-cultural hipster, it has actually become socially advantageous to throw out ironic witticisms as opposed to heartfelt confessions—we laugh with the kid who makes a mordant quip, but laugh at a person who gushes extensively about him/herself; and, no, the behavior is not limited to Facebook status updates. In fact, the prevalence of cynicism and sardonicism that often lack any emotional coloring, whatsoever, permeates throughout our social interactions—from those with complete strangers to those with our best friends and significant others.
Before analyzing this cultural behavior, one needs to understand the fundamental psychology behind emotional inhibition. After all, irony inherently stymies true meaning, which almost always has an emotional component. Everyone represses his or her emotions, to some extent; in fact, everyone must do so—an individual that acts like a human mood ring wouldn’t fare too well in society. Aside from specific disorders and anomalies, emotional control never really stops; moreover, we get better at it with experience (i.e. as we age). In terms of neuroanatomy, the most recent research points to the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC—region of the brain immediately behind the forehead), the anterior cingulate cortex, and the anterior insular cortex as structural correlates for emotional regulation; all three regions tend to be bigger with more emotional control. Furthermore, the latter two domains work in tandem to generate a subjective self-awareness: the insular cortex processes interoception, or the sensitivity to physical stimuli, while the cingulate cortices attach emotional salience to that sensitivity.
However, emotional control is a vague notion; brand new research, therefore, works to negotiate any ambiguity: researchers have differentiated two basic emotional regulatory strategies, expressive suppression and emotional reappraisal. Suppression involves the actual inhibition of emotional response and behavior, while reappraisal is more of a cognitive reevaluation (e.g. “I could get really mad about that, but that would be stupid”). Swiss neuroscientists at the University of Geneva looked at not only how these two strategies differentially activate the brain (via frontal magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI), but also how these activations changed with the context or valence of the stimulus (one of 240 possible images): the images depicted either a social or nonsocial context and a positive or negative valence. They found that the strategy used by the subject completely changed the brain response to negative, social, and nonsocial stimuli.
The obvious question, then, is whether one brain response is “better” than the other. The latest neuroscience research suggests that the answer is often “yes.” Expressive suppression has been tied to the emotional devaluation of faces (inhibition tended to yield a lower trustworthiness rating of the face), longer smoking histories (as opposed to those of smokers that utilized reappraisal) and even depression. Emotional regulation is also linked to working memory capacity (WMC), or the ability to process information while distracted or engaged in a separate task: an October 2010 study found that individuals with higher WMC utilized a coping mechanism similar to emotional reappraisal in that they controlled negative emotions to make themselves feel better. Researchers also found that the memory encoding mechanism is different for individuals who practice emotional reappraisal—the strategy seems to aid mnemonic processes as well as to encode negative memories in a more positive way.
However, while reappraisal has many psychological benefits, the strategy itself is not always beneficial. Taken to its extreme, for example, reappraisal of grief as joy can be immoral, or even psychopathic. People who utilize emotional reappraisal, moreover, tended to accept unfair offers more than those who regulated their emotions differently, according to a University of Arizona study—reappraising too much, then, generates a sort of “pushover” persona.
When we hide our true feelings from others, are we reappraising those emotions (i.e. feeling one while appearing to feel another) or inhibiting the emotional sensation (e.g. appearing nonchalant when we really are not)? Do we switch strategies when interacting with different people (e.g. significant other versus a stranger)? These questions are important to consider, though the line between the two regulatory methods can be unclear especially when the apparent emotion is a neutral one.
The reappraisal mechanism ultimately allows the individual to survive, emotionally—without it, we would be plagued by various mood disorders like depression. Blunt suppression of emotions might be a short-term coping mechanism, but it does not do much for our mental health. The ideal form of emotional control is always in flux: sometimes we need to reconsider our emotions about a situation, sometimes we do not, and sometimes it’s simply easier to cut ourselves off from emotion. Maintaining a balance is both a conscious and unconscious effort, and, while metacognition (thinking about thinking) more often than not improves our mental well-being, excessive rumination about the most instinctual recesses of our minds will likely be counter-productive. Though, you should probably do some soul-searching, if your idea of an emotionally honest relationship is the general awkwardness of asking who the naked person in your bed is upon waking up, hungover, on a Sunday morning.Caitlin is a senior Neurobiology major at Georgetown University, where she also minors in Linguistics. In addition to being a "Voices" contributor for NextGen Journal, she is a research assistant in a developmental neurobiology lab at Georgetown. She thoroughly enjoys working towards a dual career in research and medicine, especially when every teacher, peer, and friend suggests automobile insurance as a better occupation.