Orbitofrontal Cortex – Your Brain’s Socio-Emotional Compass The orbitofrontal cortex controls how we respond to social stimuli, cognitive decisions are made here

Is it a look of love or hatred? Can I trust this person or not? Will he/she be the right partner for me?  How do we make these calculated choices? Your sensory system takes in the information but that quick cognitive decision is made by the orbitofrontal cortex – your social brain.

The Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC ) plays a critical role in deciphering external information, particularly interpersonal interactions. The OFC cooly responds to social cues while the amygdala brusquely reacts without rational thought.

Yes, the OFC helps us think before we act.  It helps us attach value to a person/situation and assess our best options.

Orbitofrontal Cortex:  Your Brain’s Socio-Visual Compass
Orbitofrontal cortex, our social brain helps us make cognitive decisions 

Orbitofrontal Cortex – Executive Decision-Maker

The orbitofrontal cortex is located right above our eye sockets. It is one part of the- prefrontal cortex (PFC) or the Executive Center. The PFC consists of the medial prefrontal cortex – handles attention and motivation, the lateral prefrontal cortex – allows us to create and execute plans and the orbitofrontal cortex – the rational decision-maker.

Further, the OFC  can be divided into two major parts: the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (lOFC) and the medial orbitofrontal cortex   (mOFC). Socio-emotional  information is processed in the medial OFC while the lateral OFC is involved in making moral decisions

Like most brain regions the orbitofrontal cortex is hemispherically divided – the right orbitofrontal area contains a map of our emotional life and emotional history. It is internally oriented. The left, on the other hand, is externally focused.

The OFC works not just in tandem with the other 2 prefrontal centers but also with other parts of the brain. The orbitofrontal cortex anatomically and functionally connects through neural networks with the limbic system and with the brain stem. The limbic system mediates our emotional and social information. The brain stem mediates our arousal and physiological states.

Unfortunately for us humans this part of the brain fully develops much later in life -around mid-twenties. Furthermore,  many of us grow up in dysfunctional caregivers whose abusive relational interactions inhibit/damage the proper development of this key region of our brain.

Parental Attunement Develops The Orbitofrontal Cortex

Positive parental attunement is what creates a healthy brain. The look of love regulates a child’s emotional right brain and helps him develop a strong sense of self. I am worthy, I am valuable, I am accepted, I am loved are the messages conveyed by our caregivers’ looks and actions.

The first two years of a child’s life is the period of massive right brain development wherein lies the core of a child’s personality, his self-esteem, his sense of self and his relationship with others. The OFC first plays an active role at about age two, handling comprehension and reflection.

The more attuned and empathetic the primary caregiver is the better the OFC develops.

Brain imagining during a study conducted with Romanian orphans who had had no opportunity to form an attachment during infancy and early childhood revealed a black hole where the orbitofrontal cortex should be.

Childhood Trauma & Mental Illness

Even though our parents may say they love us our sensitive OFC picks any discrepancies between words and actions.   This cognitive dissonance affects the brain. Our OFC gets split because of inconsistencies in our actual realities. It has been proven that disorganized attachment leads to changes in the OFC resulting in Dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder.

In fact, dysfunction in the orbitofrontal cortex is linked to practically all possible mental illness – depression, borderline disorder, autism, schizophrenia,  bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD and my theory is even scoliosis. But, that I will leave for another post.

Studies have shown that psychopaths have poor functioning OFCs.

Without a doubt, our sense of self is determined by our core relationships and the OFC plays an important part in making sense of our social environment.

Thinking And Acting

Our sensory system helps us decipher the nonverbal facial and body signals of others. Incoming information is processed through 2 brain routes.   Information is transmitted to our decision-making centers either via the amygdala way, ‘fast-route’ or the OFC way ‘slow-route.

Childhood trauma makes us hyper-vigilant and over-sensitive to stimuli. It messes up our innate sense of neuroception – being able to detect threats and safety. We are in a constant state of reactivity. Any stimuli automatically make us adopt some type of stress response, fight-flight-freeze or fawn. Our rational OFC never gets a chance to develop in order to make calm, sensible decisions.

On the other hand, OFC damage leads us making more risky choices and emotionally-driven decisions.

I was in that state for many years trying to escape an abusive home, I chose to shack up with a married guy. Despite the signs being clear, he was unreliable. I saw the truth but armored my eyes from seeing the actual reality.

Eye Connection – Empathy

Our eyes play an important role in our interpersonal relationships and managing our external environment. Neuron projections from the eyes lead directly to the OFC. When two people’s eyes meet, they have interlinked their orbitofrontal areas, which are especially sensitive to face-to-face cues. These social “pathways” play a critical role in recognizing another person’s emotional state.

Our level of empathy is determined by the state of our orbitofrontal cortex.

Childhood trauma messes up our sense of self that either we numb our emotions and become cold and unempathetic or we compensate for our own inner feeling of being unloved and become over-empathetic. Both of which are bad for us. Either way, it affects our success in personal and social situations.

Awe and our Brain

Healing Your Orbitofrontal Cortex

Having a well functioning OFC is vital for our mental and social well-being. Though no one brain center works in isolation –  our nervous system is an intricately linked mechanism. Dysfunction in one part affects the function of the other parts of the brain-body system which in turn affects our mental-physical health and our social success.

In the above TED Talk Neuroscientist, Beau Lotto discusses how awe changes our brain. Awe helps us move from a stuck depressive state to one of the infinite possibilities. It just takes a few moments of transcendence to change your brain wiring. from impossible to possible. Find ways to get into this state. Admire a beautiful sunset or go for an opera.

Even being grateful for our everyday blessing and prayer helps us move away from negative to a positive state. They engage the orbitofrontal cortex, which helps boost our optimism. After all, it is not so bad, when our rational brain is online we will not opt for irrational steps like suicide.

Reducing the constant intrusive thoughts and critical messages we have playing in our heads is crucial to healing childhood trauma. Here, healing sound music and guided imagery have been very effective.

Another is focussing my attention on something that also uses my hands – cooking, stitching, baking, pottery not just relax the limbic brain but also gets the prefrontal cortex online.

Indulging in activities that get my dopamine pumping, like going food foraging and water-skiing. Dopamine is the reward hormone that modulates the orbitofrontal cortex.

Attuned Relationships – Healing Medicine

Of course, close relationships, deep attunement with a loving and caring person is the key to healing our orbitofrontal cortex.

However do remember they have to be positive and supportive relationships, stay away from toxic connections. In every relationship check your OFC compass. I have found the area around the right eye very sensitive during interpersonal interactions – safe – my eye feels steady; unsafe, the area around my right eye twitches or I feel my eyes being pulled down or to my right side or  I involuntary look away.

Pay attention to your OFC, after all, it is your social brain and the expert decision-maker.

Image Source: Wikipedia


Ref:  The functions of the orbitofrontal cortex

Further Reading:

Right Brain Psychotherapy Allan N. Schore Ph.D.

The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being – Daniel J. Siegel 

Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences That Create Intelligence & Emotional Growth In Babies -Nancy Lewis

Scattered Minds: A New Look At The Origins And Healing Of Attention Deficit Disorder – Gabor Mate

The Irreducible Needs Of Children: What Every Child Must Have To Grow, Learn, And Flourish – Stanley Greenspan

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3 years ago

I just love this latest article on the brain… I have known this for a long time but you write it in super clear layman’s terms which is what is needed… I would add that when you entrust your child at 4 to school you also are putting them sadly at high risk… the impact of years of bullying on one of my three has done untold damage.. keep up the great work. Best wishes Susan