A blue glowing brain

What do the basal ganglia do? What roles do they play when it comes to your emotions, decisions, and learning?

Whether you’ve ever heard of them or not, your basal ganglia make a big difference in your life. In his book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, psychiatrist and brain health expert Daniel G. Amen explains how important this system in your brain is.

Read more to learn what the basal ganglia do.

What the Basal Ganglia Do

What do the basal ganglia do? According to Dr. Amen, your basal ganglia modulate your reactions and behaviors. For example, when you jump with excitement at good news, or your hands tremble in nervous anticipation, it’s your basal ganglia integrating your feelings and movements. Your basal ganglia achieve this by doing the following:

  • Coordinating motor control and inhibiting unwanted behaviors: They oversee voluntary movements, integrate feelings, and suppress undesired actions.
  • Enhancing cognition: They contribute to decision-making, planning, and problem-solving.
  • Regulating emotions and anxiety levels: They aid in emotional processing and mood regulation while helping set appropriate anxiety levels.
  • Influencing motivation and reward responses: They direct the brain’s reward system—amplifying motivation, pleasure, and the anticipation of rewards.
  • Supporting habit development: They enable the efficient learning and repetition of specific behaviors.
The Basal Ganglia in Detail

Within the basal ganglia, numerous smaller components work in tandem to enable the functions that Dr. Amen describes. Breaking down some of these components will help you better understand the complex processes underlying your reactions and behaviors.

Coordinating motor control and inhibiting unwanted behaviors: The striatum processes signals from various brain regions, suppressing conflicting or extraneous motor signals to coordinate movements. This is crucial for precise motor tasks like handwriting.

Enhancing cognition: The globus pallidus regulates the striatum, modulating which movements get executed or inhibited. This impacts your coordination between thought and action, such as planning a sequence of movements in sports.

Regulating emotions and anxiety levels: The substantia nigra adjusts dopamine levels, influencing how your brain perceives and responds to emotional stimuli—for example, how you react to a suspenseful movie or your resilience in challenging situations.

Influencing motivation and reward responses: The nucleus accumbens responds to dopamine released by the substantia nigra, processing information about potential rewards to create behavior-motivating feelings of anticipation and pleasure.

Supporting habit development: The striatum reinforces the neural pathways associated with frequently repeated behaviors, making them more automatic. This is why, after extensive practice, complex tasks like driving become almost second nature.
What Do the Basal Ganglia Do? Dr. Amen Explains Their Roles

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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