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Emotional Intelligence and the Prefrontal Cortex

By Jodi Cohen

Illustration of a human brain divided into colorful sections, possibly representing different brain functions or areas, on a blue background.

Your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain located behind your forehead, supports not only your “executive function” and your ability to organize, plan, and make decisions, but also your emotional intelligence, and your ability to understand and manage your emotional response.

Research on emotion and the prefrontal cortex finds that “the prefrontal cortex plays a critical role in the generation and regulation of emotion.” In other words, this region of the brain needs healthy stimulation and blood flow to support healthy emotional regulation and  value-based decision making, including the following nine emotionally supportive aspects of the prefrontal cortex identified by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel in his 2007 book The Mindful Brain.


9 Functions of the Prefrontal Cortex

Empathy – Defined as conscious awareness and sensitivity to the mind of someone else, empathy allows you to put yourself in another person’s shoes, have compassion for their experience and see their  point of view.

Research on the neural processes involved in empathy correlated the  brain’s prefrontal regions with the ability to express empathy.  The study noted that  “The ability to detect the immediate affective state of another person  is considered a precursor to empathy.”  The prefrontal cortex helps you access your powers of observation, memory, knowledge, and reasoning to yield insights into the thoughts and feelings of others.

Insight – or the awareness and ability to accurately self-evaluate requires you to  link and evaluate past, present, and future aspects of time. Research on the Roles of Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Orbitofrontal Cortex in Self-evaluation discovered that the middle prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in this process.  Your prefrontal cortex connects through input and output fibers to many areas of autobiographical memory stores and limbic firing that gives emotional texture to the emerging themes of events from the past, an awareness of the present and potential images of the future.

Fear Modulation – The prefrontal cortex regulates the expression of fear based on previously learned information. Research on Prefrontal cortical regulation of fear learning proposes that “the prefrontal cortex facilitates fear memory (and fear conditioning) through the integration of sensory and emotional signals and through the coordination of memory storage in an amygdala-based network” which contributes to fear responses like anxiety disorders.

More specifically, the prefrontal cortex responds messages from the amygdala by releasing the  inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA which  has been found to modulate fear. The lower limbic (primitive) areas of the brain, like the amygdala, mediate fear or the flight or fight response. The middle prefrontal fibers that have the capacity to modulate the amygdala hijack fear response and the neurotransmitter GABA plays a key role in modulating this fear response.  This is why GABA is often mentioned as a natural remedy for anxiety.  Strengthening the prefrontal cortex can also support this mechanism.

As noted in the study Stress in Regulation of GABA Amygdala System and Relevance to Neuropsychiatric Diseases “GABAergic neurotransmission inhibits the amygdala and prevents it from generating inappropriate emotional and behavioral responses. “

Emotional Regulation – Your prefrontal cortex allows the executive functions to maintain emotional balance. Research shows that the brain’s prefrontal cortex helps monitor and inhibit limbic firing.   This modulation helps prevent overwhelm and inflexibility in your emotional response and gives you the ability to stay clear and focus in the face of both internal and external storms.  Research on the Neural Bases of Emotion Regulation: Reappraisal and Suppression of Negative Emotion found “prefrontal cortex responses decreased negative emotion behavior and experience, and decreased amygdala and insular responses”.

Intuition – Commonly described as a “Gut Feeling”, your sense of deep inner knowing actually may actually be attributed to your prefrontal cortex and its role in registering nonconscious emotional cues. Research titled The Brains Behind Intuition found that the “prefrontal cortex is part of a system that stores information about past rewards and punishments, and triggers the nonconscious emotional responses that normal people register as intuition or a “hunch.”  It is believed that this intuition “ may play a role in decision-making before conscious processes do.”

Body Regulation – Your body self-regulates to maintain a stable internal environment, known as homeostasis that is supported by your parasympathetic nervous system.  When your prefrontal cortex is actively inhibiting you fear response and supporting healthy emotional reactions, self-awareness and cognitive processing, your body can easily drop into the parasympathetic state and maintain healthy body regulation.  When the prefrontal cortex is less active and amygdala driven fear responses active the sympathetic “fight or flight” branch of the sympathetic nervous system, it compromises body regulation.

Morality  – There is evidence that the prefrontal cortex may be important for moral behavior. Adults who suffer damage to the prefrontal cortex develop problems with making decisions and with behaving appropriately in social situations and that this damage can lead to mental impairment and moral thinking can turn to various forms of amorality.  Research on The role of prefrontal cortex in a moral judgment task using functional near‐infrared spectroscopy https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/moral.html found correlations between enhanced prefrontal cortex activation during moral dilemmas.

Response Flexibility – The prefrontal cortex enables the capacity to pause before action allows you to be more flexible and proactive in your response.  Research on Conflict monitoring and cognitive  control has shown that flexible cognition and response requires the gathering of task-relevant information and assessing this ongoing stimuli to guide thought and action in accordance with current goals and intentions.  “The prefrontal cortex  is  thought to play a particularly important role in exerting this control.”  More specifically, your prefrontal cortex helps you delay of reaction, discern among a variety of possible options, and select the best response.

Essential Oils Can Stimulate the Prefrontal Cortex

When you inhale essential oils they travel through the nasal passageway to the frontal lobe of the brain and can be used to stimulate the prefrontal cortex.

This increased stimulation helps to strengthen your prefrontal cortex which both helps to enhance your brain’s ability to plan, organize, and see the big picture along with supporting emotional intelligence. When the prefrontal cortex is not firing on all cylinders, it loses processing speed,  deficits of inhibition and focus can occur, resulting in poor internal supervision, short attention span, distractability, disorganization, and hyperactivity, impulse control problems, difficulty learning from past errors, lack of forethought, and procrastination.

Essential oils are a great tool to stimulate the prefrontal cortex and support healthy function.  In fact, research on the effects of olfactory stimulation with rose and orange oil on prefrontal cortex activity backs this up, finding “that olfactory stimulation by rose or orange oil induces physiological and psychological relaxation.”  Study participants also reported an increase in “comfortable,” “relaxed,” and “natural” feelings.

Topically applying essential oils for focus to the prefrontal cortex (over your forehead) can help draw energy to and strengthen your prefrontal cortex by increasing blood flow and energy to the area.  Your prefrontal cortex helps balance brain function and improve cognition and processing speed.

In fact, research shows that increasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex can prevent the reduction of brain function in elderly people, especially in attention and working memory.

This is because your prefrontal cortex contains several reflex points that can be stimulated with essential oils for focus. Applying essential oils or touching to these reflex points to the forehead can increase cerebral spinal, organ and muscle flow of blood to the area.  It’s hypothesized that when we are under stress, blood goes to the back of our brain, where the past is stored. Placing a hand, or appropriate essential oils, over the forehead, helps shift the energy and blood flow from the more emotional mid‐brain areas to the area just below the forehead known as the prefrontal cortex which is associated with a calmer mind and rational, logical thinking.

Read this Next: Essential Oils for the Pre-Frontal Cortex

Essential Oils to Support the Prefrontal Cortex?

My favorite essential oil blend to stimulate the prefrontal cortex is Focus™ blend.  It contains the following oils designed to support focus:

Basil (Ocimum basilicum): Is one of the best nerve tonics. It clears your head and helps relieve intellectual fatigue, which gives the mind added strength and clarity.   Basil has a high linalool content, making it an ideal to help sharpen your memory, improve concentration and promote a sense of focus when applied to the temples and back of the neck.

Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum): Helps lift the mood and alleviate mental fatigue and nervous strain. Improves mental clarity and memory.

Peppermint (Mentha piperita):  Peppermint helps to boost your focus and your energy level both mentally and physically.  Research from the University of Cincinnati found that inhaling peppermint oil increases mental accuracy by 28 percent.

Research on Modulation of cognitive performance and mood by aromas of peppermint and ylang-ylang found that peppermint oil enhanced mental alertness, cognition and mood. “Peppermint was found to enhance memory and increase alertness.” Another research paper on The Effect of Peppermint on Memory Performance suggests peppermint essential oils improve memory and retrieval in cognitive tasks requiring sustained focus

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis):  Helps your brain and your memory work at top form. In addition to helping you focus and concentration, it may also help you relieve nervous exhaustion and stress-related illness. For example, rosemary oil contains cineole, which increases blood flow in the brain, improving alertness, as demonstrated by a 2012 study published in Therapeutic Advances in Pharmacology.

To help enhance your focus, apply 2- 3 drops of Focus™ over your temples 2-3 times daily or as needed during moments where additional focus is needed.  You can also put a few drops on a tissue or cotton ball and hold it where you can smell it.


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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.