Limbic system: the emotional part of the brain

the Limbic system it is one of the most interesting and important neural networks when it comes to studying human behavior, as it is one of the parts of the brain that plays a most relevant role in the appearance of moods.

This is why it is sometimes called “the emotional brain”. But … what exactly is the limbic system and what are its functions?

What is the limbic system?

The limbic system is a collection of structures in the brain with fuzzy boundaries that are particularly related to each other and the function has to do with the appearance of emotional states or what can be understood as “instincts”, though. we use this concept in its broadest sense. Fear, happiness or anger, as well as all the emotional states full of nuances, they have their main neurological base in this neural network.

So at the heart of the usefulness of the limbic system are emotions, which we relate to the irrational. However, the consequences of what happens in the limbic system affect many processes that, theoretically, we do not have to associate with the emotional face of the human being, such as memorization and learning.

The learning limbic system

Over 200 years ago, an English philosopher named Jeremy Bentham, one of the fathers of utilitarianism, proposed the idea of ​​a way to calculate happiness based on a classification of criteria to differentiate between evil. some pleasure. In theory, from this calculation, we could know how useful or unnecessary each situation is, depending on how satisfied you are with this formula.

In simple terms, it can be said that, in a manner similar to what Bentham proposed, the limbic system is something like the judge that determines what is worth learning and how it should be memorized according to the pleasant or painful sensations that each situation produces in us.

In other words, how the positive or negative value of each experience is experienced depends on the limbic system. But in addition, the way the limbic system influences the way we learn will affect our personality.

some examples

For example, a mouse that has undergone operative conditioning and has come to associate the action of moving a lever with the appearance of food in a drawer in its cage, learns to move the lever, it is thanks to the sensations pleasant that it gives you. want to see the food and try it, that is, based on something based on the euphoria of discovering a piece of cheese when you are hungry and the pleasant sensations it produces when eating it.

In humans too we can understand that these situations in which the pleasure is more sublimated in a complex wayLike what one feels when listening to a good poetry recital, teaches us that going back to the cultural association in which we heard it is “useful”. The limbic system is always the part of the brain responsible for this.

Parts of the limbic system

Keep in mind that the limbic system is not exactly an anatomically precise region of the brain.Rather, it is a network of neurons spread throughout the brain that are mixed up between many different structures. In other words, the concept of the limbic system has more to do with the function of these areas than with their nature as a specific, well-defined part of the brain.

However, it is possible to point out parts of the brain which play a very important role in the network of interconnections that are the limbic system and which, therefore, serve to give us an idea of ​​what are the areas through which the circuit passes. The parts of the limbic system are as follows:


One of the areas of the brain most involved in regulating emotions, For its connection with the pituitary gland and therefore with the endocrine system and all parts of the body in which all kinds of hormones are released.

  • To learn more about this part of the brain, you can read this article on the thalamus


The hippocampus plays a very important role in mental processes related to memory, Both in memorizing experiences and abstract information and in retrieving memories. The seahorses are located on the inner side of the temporal lobes, very close to the thalamus and tonsils.

The hippocampus is framed in what is known as the limbic lobe cortex, or archicortex, which is one of the oldest parts of the cerebral cortex; that is, it appeared very early in the line of evolution that led to the emergence of the human being.


Cerebral tonsils are located on the side of each hippocampus, And so there is one in each of the hemispheres of the brain. Their role is related to the learned emotional response that certain situations elicit, and therefore they are involved in emotional learning, so they play a role in the limbic system.

Orbitofrontal cortex

At the limits of the limbic system is the orbitofrontal cortex, which is the outlet valve for “emotional” commands to areas of the frontal lobe responsible for planning and creating strategies. Therefore, it plays an important role in the appeasement of the “irrational impulses” which come from the limbic system and to pass only part of these signals, those which will be used to define the objectives of the actions with medium or long term goals.

Is it fair to speak of the “emotional brain”?

In popular culture there is the widespread idea that the human brain has an emotional and rational part. The emotional brain, which we would have inherited from our most primitive ancestors, would be the one through which we have emotions, feelings and impulses that are difficult to suppress, while the rational is responsible for the most conscientious and logical analysis of situations. . we live or imagine.

However, as we have seen, the limbic system is deeply interconnected with other areas of the brain that are not directly identified with what we call emotions, so the idea that we have an emotional brain is, in large part. part, an overly imaginative way of understanding this network of connections.

Also, keep in mind that if we are talking about an emotional brain, it is to contrast this concept with the idea of ​​a rational brain, which would be represented by the more superficial areas of the frontal and parietal lobe. However, if in the case of the limbic system at least we know that it is about a set of rather old structures in our evolutionary line, the idea that there is in us a part of our body made for thinking rationally with a certain autonomy it is directly an illusion.

Rationality is not innate

There are our ancestors who only lived with a limbic system and no ability to think along the lines of what we mean by rationality, but in human history, rational thought is rather an exception. Not only do we not think rationally most of the time, but until a few thousand years ago rationality did not exist and, in fact, in some less westernized cultures, adults tend not to achieve the proposed fourth stage of cognitive development. Jean Piaget.

In other words, what we call rationality is more a product of history than the fruit of a set of brain structures designed for it. The limbic system is, in any case, one of the regions of the brain that allows the emergence of rational thought, and not the other way around.

Bibliographical references:

  • Herculano-Houzel, S. (2009). The human brain in numbers: a primate brain on a linear scale. Hum Neurosci.
  • Maton, Anthea; Jean Hopkins; Charles William McLaughlin; Susan Johnson; Maryanna Quon Warner; David LaHart; Jill D. Wright (1993). Human biology and health. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, USA: Prentice Hall.
  • Rosenberger, Peter B. MD; Adams, Heather R. PhD. Big brain / intelligent brain. December 17, 2011.

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