What Is the Limbic System? (Plus How to Keep It Healthy)

Although it’s only a small part of the brain in terms of volume, the limbic system has some of the most basic, life-sustaining, and meaningful roles of all brain structures.

The word limbic comes from the Latin word limbus, meaning “border.”

That’s because the limbic system forms a curved border around the subcortical parts of the brain called the cerebral Cortex and the diencephalon.

Ever wonder what part of the brain controls emotions?

While the entire central nervous system helps control our emotions, as you’ll learn, activities in the limbic system and autonomic nervous system are especially influential over our emotional health.

The entire limbic system — including subparts like the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and amygdala

helps control numerous emotional, voluntary, endocrine, and visceral responses to our environments that we all experience daily.

What Is the Limbic System?

Of all the areas of the brain, from an evolutionary perspective, the limbic system is said to be one of the oldest and most primitive, having formed many hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Similar systems are also found in most other animals, even reptiles. In the past, the limbic system was sometimes even referred to as the “paleomammalian brain.”

Although the limbic system works with other areas of the brain in complex ways and therefore has far more than just one role,

the word that best describes what the limbic system controls would be “emotions.”

Secondly, a part of the limbic system called the hippocampus helps us form and retain memories, which is very important for learning and development.

At all stages of our life, the limbic system and hippocampus also help govern emotional behaviors.

While it’s an oversimplification to say that limbic functions only determine someone’s emotions,

it’s clear that this system plays a massive part in helping us do things like remember past events that were both pleasant and traumatic, perceive threats from our surroundings,

make choices based on our experiences, control movements based on prior learning, form sensory preferences/likes/dislikes, and much more.

Limbic System and Hippocampus Function and Structure 

The limbic system sits atop the brain stem, which is believed to be one of the first parts of the brain to develop, react to stimuli, and the most basic in terms of sustaining life.

It’s located on both sides of the thalamus and underneath the cerebrum.

There’s not a total consensus among neuroscientists about which structures of the brain are technically part of the limbic system,

considering it’s tough to neatly classify cortical areas given how much neural overlap there is.

That being said, most consider the limbic system to be made up of cortical regions (structures), including:

The limbic system is one hard-working region of the brain, as you can tell. Some specific limbic system functions include:

The hippocampus is part of the entire limbic system, but it helps to understand how it contributes to memory to learning. Functions of the hippocampus include:

Limbic System Disorders

Because subparts of the limbic system ultimately regulate essential aspects of our conscious and unconscious patterns, including our emotions, perceptions, relationships, behaviors, and motor control — it’s easy to see why damage to this region can cause serious problems.

Disorders or acts that are related to limbic system dysfunction, or sometimes limbic system damage due to things like traumatic injuries or aging, include:

Emotional and Psychological Link to the Limbic System

As you’ve probably gathered, the limbic system plays a dominant role in creating different emotions and feelings. Some even call it “the emotional switchboard of the brain.”

A critical way that the limbic system impacts emotional health is through carrying sensory input from the environment to the hypothalamus and then from the hypothalamus to other parts of the body.

The hypothalamus acts like the “regulator” of hormone control, helps the body maintain homeostasis, and sends signals to the pituitary/thyroid/adrenal glands.

It receives information from many body parts, including the heart, vagus nerve, gut/digestive system, and skin.

Because of the hypothalamus’s functions, the limbic system is directly in control of your “stress response” and these essential functions:

Interactions between the hypothalamus and the rest of the limbic system are responsible for controlling the autonomic nervous system, including the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). In other words, the SNS and PNS control our “fight or flight” response.

Disorders like generalized anxiety, social anxiety, phobias, bipolar disorder, and even addictions and depression are tied to hyperarousal, high amounts of stress/fear, and dysfunctions of the fight-flight-response.

Anxiety and high amounts of stress (including increased cortisol levels) also have an impact on inflammation levels,

digestion and gut health, cardiovascular functions, your immune system, and the reproductive system

sometimes contributing to disorders like diabetes, insomnia, high blood pressure, higher susceptibility to infections, and infertility.

Essential Oils and the Limbic System

The limbic system gathers information from the environment through sensory details.

As you’ve experienced firsthand many times, your senses can alter your emotional state rapidly. For example, a pleasurable meal can make you feel comforted, and deafening noises can make you feel anxious.

Ever wonder why certain smells conjure up memories and even physical feelings so vividly?

Our sense of smell is unique compared to our other reasons (such as taste, sight, and hearing) because it bypasses parts of the brain that different types of sensory information often cannot.

Because of this, smells can often cause immediate and intense emotional reactions based on memories.

Smells can bring us back to past events within milliseconds, making us feel a certain way based on past events, whether we realize why we’re suddenly feeling that way or not.

Essential oils, for example, can have dramatic effects on limbic function and how you feel.

This is true because the strong fragrances they hold, which are found inside volatile molecules that can make their way into your bloodstream, travel directly through the blood/brain barrier very quickly.

How to Keep the Limbic System Healthy

To maintain homeostasis and feel your best, the goal is to balance activities of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.

Too much activation of one causes high amounts of anxiety, but too much of the other causes low motivation and symptoms like fatigue. Here are ways to help keep your limbic system functioning smoothly.

Use Soothing or Uplifting Essential Oils

When used in aromatherapy (inhaled), there is evidence that essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream and then trigger the hippocampus.

This is mostly due to the number of blood vessels in the lungs that take up the oils and then circulate them throughout the body, including to the brain.

Using a diffuser can help you experience the benefits of essential oils, or you can directly inhale them from the bottle or a cotton swab.

You can diffuse lavender to reduce stress, melaleuca to cleanse the air, wild orange to improve your overall mood, frankincense for spiritual enlightenment, and peppermint essential oil to enhance focus and energy.

Practice Deep Breathing

Deep breathing exercises, coupled with intentional relaxation of muscles, engage the circuitry of the PNS, and strengthens it for future use.

Relaxing/deep breathing also quiets the fight-or-flight SNS, since relaxed muscles send feedback to the alarm centers in the brain that there are no threats present.

A simple way to practice deep breathing is to lay on your back and try taking slow, steady breaths from your diaphragm (near your belly, as opposed to from your chest).

You can also try inhaling for four seconds, holding your breath for seven seconds and exhaling slowly for eight seconds, repeating this for five to 10 minutes.

Try Visualizations or Guided Imagery

Visual stimuli have essential influences on emotional health, socialization, and well-being. They can even be used to reduce anxiety disorders or symptoms of autism.

To practice, bring to mind in detail a place that makes you feel happy and relaxed (a vacation, being in nature or time spent with family, for example). 

Imagine or feel that the experience is entering deeply into your mind and body, keeping your muscles relaxed and absorbing positive emotions, sensations, and thoughts of the experience.


Exercise helps control stress, balance hormones (such as cortisol), raise immune function and lower inflammation.

One of the ways it does this is by training your autonomic nervous system/fight-flight-response to return to normal more quickly following periods of stress/arousal.

Make a Habit of Being Mindful, Still and Silent

You can try things guided meditation or regular healing prayer to achieve this.

These can help you cultivate gratitude, reduce stress, make you feel more connected to others, become more mindful/aware of good things in your life, and increase feelings of compassion, kindness, and well-being.

Interesting Facts and History of the Limbic System

The functions that different regions of the brain are responsible for have been debated since the time of Aristotle thousands of years ago.

Neuroscience has come a long way since then, especially recently thanks to imaging studies like MRIs, and it’s now widely accepted that the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, anterior cingulate Cortex,

hippocampus and insula participate in controlling the majority of human emotional processes.

Today, teaching people who struggle with anxiety or depression to learn to calm their autonomic nervous systems intentionally is a significant focus in psychology, therapy, and neuroscience research.

In recent decades, scientists have come to understand that our brains are always adapting to our environments throughout our entire life spans.

The brain’s capacity to learn — and change itself depending on its environment — is called neuroplasticity, which, when used to our advantage, helps us become happier in addition to more knowledgeable.

The limbic system is responsible for governing “avoidance” versus “approach” behaviors in most animals — in other words, feelings of pleasure versus anxiety/pain.

Approach and avoidance are precisely what helps keep us alive and ensure survival. That’s why the limbic system is said to be so “primitive” and is found in all types of species.

Because of how quickly the limbic system works, your brain can register something as being dangerous (such as a car speeding by you) and trigger you to move out of the way/avoid it BEFORE you even consciously know what happened or have time to think it over.

When you come across something threatening, your hippocampus immediately compares the image to its stored list of dangers.

The hippocampus then communicates to your amygdala by sending high-priority alerts (which is why the amygdala is often called your “alarm bell”) that fast-track actions of your fight-or-flight/hormonal systems.

The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive news to prioritize, ensuring survival.

This is often called our “negativity bias” and explains why it’s often easier to remember adverse events more easily than positive ones.

Because of this tendency, it can be easy for some people to become overly anxious or depressed if they don’t train themselves to focus on the good in their lives or practice calming activities and gratitude.

Final Thoughts on the Limbic System