The Brain, we hear so much about it, we all have one, yet so few understand it. I have spent most of my post-pubescent life wondering just how this lump of tissue works and why. Last Thursday I attended a neurobiology conference at Columbia University where life, work, and personal research came full circle…..
The following information could change your life, but like anything, it will take work, but the results can make you a new person.
So, the brain, with more and more technology becoming better and better we are gaining new insight into the brain. The fMRI (Functioning Magnetic Resonance Imaging) gives us the ability to see what part of the brain is being used during different emotional responses. Essentially we are seeing the brain go through its motions on how it comes to a result. Combine this with a knowledge of what each area in the brain is responsible for and you have a crude road map of how stimuli enters the brain and how it gets transformed into a conclusion and then a response. Really, an incredible visual for something that happens at a speed at which we can’t quite comprehend.
Video of an fMRI, it will not mean much to you, but the colors shift due to the amount of blood being delivered to that part of the brain, more blood = more use. Knowing what each part of the brain does, we can figure out what is being used by the brain to react to stimuli….
The last missing piece to this puzzle is that commonly used word that is commonly misunderstood, hormones. You hear people use this term all the time, especially women in reference to being “hormonal”. But what are hormones and what do they do? Essentially, they are how your body communicates. You see everything in your body works by molecules having the right shape to latch on to the right receptor to trigger the cell to express a gene that makes a physical protein that will help you carry out the task at hand.
Let’s do an easy example of a hormone, adrenaline (epinephrine). We have all heard of it, (ad = on top, renal = kidney, the adrenal gland sits on top of the kidney). How does adrenaline work? Let’s do a scenario, and I am going to use one from my childhood….
My dad and I were walking to a cranberry bog in Cape Cod so I could go catch frogs, wide open farm like area with woods and thorn bushes around the perimeter and an open dirt driveway to the boggy areas. I was probably around 8 years old at the time, but I remember it quite well. As we were walking down the broad dirt driveway a large Doberman Pinscher appeared about 20 yards away. We both froze, the dog was not moving. I don’t remember if I thought it or my dad said it but there was a statement about the dog probably being on a leash. Then in a split second, the dog broke for us.
Physiologically in our brain we went through the same 800 million year response of every animal, fight or flight. This is where the brain decides to stay and fight, or run. Here is what went on in our bodies. We processed the dog as being an imminent threat with our eyes, this caused our Amygdala to go into action and take over, and here is where it gets interesting. My dad saw a parked car close by and immediately sprinted to get on it. I am sure he directed me to do the same, but by the time he could even get the words out I was gone. Being younger and having less experience my brain went into straight irrational flight. So irrational was my response that I ran full speed through a thorn patch, before I realized my dad had gone for the car, I immediately u-turned, ran back through the thorns and got onto the car with my dad just before the dog got there.
I remember seeing those ferocious jaws leaping for us, and my dad swinging at the dog to get it to go away, which it did.
So what happened? For starters when the flight response was triggered a cascade of chemical reactions occurred. My brain triggered the release of adrenaline into my blood stream which in turn increased my heart rate, put my glycogen production into overdrive to delve into my energy reserves, and dulled most of my pain sensory. I never realized I ran back and forth through thorns until after I calmed down.
So why did my dad go for the car and I went anywhere? Experience. He was able to recall past experiences that told him the best reaction to this situation. Me, I had no previous experiences to draw upon and just fled.
Adrenaline is a glamour hormone, the results are easy to see, but there are so many others that effect us, and you might be surprised to learn that everything you do is the result of hormone interaction….and how we can control them.
I stumbled upon my first foray into personality alteration through brain pruning by accident and without even knowing it. In my teenage years I didn’t know what hormones were, I didn’t know how the brain worked, but I was very aware of my thought processes. Which is most likely why I was able to do what I did.
Growing up, I was quite emotional, from constant anxiety (when my mom would go out to do errands I would sit by the window with my stomach in knots until she got back, if it was past the time she was supposed to be home I would start plea-bargaining with God to get her home safely), to a short temper I was not in a good place to become a stable adult. I have broken knuckles and fingers more than once punching walls out of anger and frustration when I was younger. However, now it is rare and infrequent that I would lose control like this.
I am going to run through an anger response for you.
I would have an interaction that would make me angry, for instance, being told I couldn’t have a certain toy, or couldn’t sleepover a friends house. The first noticeable physiological change I would detect is a tingling feeling around the back of my neck, this would be followed by muscle contraction, jaw clenching, elevated heart rate, and a boiling water like energy that could no longer be contained in the pot. I would start punching and screaming because if I didn’t it would literally feel like my brain would explode.
There would be a huge release of adrenaline and norepinephrine (stress hormone) and my body had to react. I essentially set off a biochemical set of dominoes that would not stop until the dominoes were exhausted. But this can be changed.
For the sake of time I will not go into why I decided to attempt a personality re-sculpting, but focus on the method I used.
If you can do this, and it takes work, you can essentially control any emotion you do not like and literally sculpt yourself into a new person. This is not a new method, but in the past the mechanism of change was not known, and thus it was not ready believed you could change your wiring. I am going to do this step by step, and there aren’t many.
1. Recognize the onset of the emotion. In my case that first tingling of “angry”. This can be difficult, if you are trying to eat healthier look for that first initial thought that says “I want a candy bar” or “mmm, what do I want to eat”. It is that moment of inception that you want to focus on.
2. Construct a 3-Dimensional object in your brain to represent that emotion. For me anger = grey box. Try not to picture the thing you are trying to stop, for instance, don’t picture a candy bar if you want to stop eating junk food, this will be counter-intuitive.
3. Imagine yourself folding, squishing, or constricting the object into something smaller, making sure to keep the connection of that object to what it represents. You are literally, physically building a protein pathway in your brain to the bad habit and that physical structure. They must stay connected. But again connect the emotion to the object, for instance, don’t think candy bar and grey box, think hunger and grey box.
4. Every time you feel that emotion, want, habit, etc. rev up, make sure you manifest the physical shape you assigned to it and physically try to compress it in the manner mentioned.
Every time I felt anger I had to make a grey box, initially this took quite some time because I didn’t care about grey boxes when I was angry, but over days and days of trying I was able to accomplish this. It worked so well in fact that whenever I got angry a grey box would appear in my head before I even tried to think about it.
Now comes the tougher part. For me I would imagine my brain as a trash compactor pushing down on the grey box. As long as I felt anger, the box would resist, but as the anger subsided the box would compress much more easily. After a few weeks I was able to notice more control over my outbursts, over months even more control. Eventually I wouldn’t even have to picture the grey box anymore, my body would just calm itself down, and then, most amazingly of all, I began to not have anger responses at all to situations I had responded to in the past.
It is rare for me to feel that tingle at the back of my neck anymore. In fact the last time I felt it was during the Super Bowl when the Patriots lost. In fact my whole system of management broke down and I put my fist through my cheap ikea coffee table. I was quickly reminded of how much progress I made by seeing that outburst. My only other achilles heel is traffic, but I am working more and more on this. It is also my dad’s achilles heel, most likely the same genetic trait that drives us to be successful (he has it more than I do) also causes anger when we are prevented from succeeding, like traveling down a road to get to an endpoint.
I will not lie, this type of brain response sculpting takes time and effort, in fact more so than physical training, because you do not get to see incremental improvement, it is more like one day you realize “Wait, why am I not angry at this?”.
I want to switch gears for a moment and talk about why it is possible, even as an adult to re-sculpt your brain. Turns out that the brain is very plastic, it is able to be shaped and molded throughout life. Not in the same sense as in development, but you can fine-tune it. Think of it like a car. The stock components are all there, but you can add and take away things to make it perform better at any time.
So here is the deal, your brain is done growing in size by age 7, so obviously these are the most important years. But we can change the wiring after development is done. Brains mature not by growing, but by creating more connections. So if your brain was represented by the alphabet you would have all the letters by 7, but you have your whole life to keep rearranging those letter to make new words.
The more you use certain parts of your brain, the more neurological and dendritic connections will develop there. For those that don’t know here is what a nerve cell looks like….
The dendrites are branches that reach out to receive signals, pass them down the cell to the terminal branches which in turn connect to other dendrites of other cells. As you can guess, the more dendrites a nerve cell has the faster it is at processing information. Well your dendrites increase and decrease based on use, just like muscles. This is called Dendritic Arbor Development. The less you use these dendrites the more they atrophy, and the slower your brain functions. This is why things like sudoku, crosswords, painting, etc can stave off Alzheimers and dementia because they keep the neural connections strong. Picture it like this. Imagine that each dendrite has a funnel on the end of it and they all are facing up, your thought is a ball being dropped, the more funnels that are there the likeliness and speed of that ball being funneled through the cell increases. The less funnels, the less likely that ball will be caught. These thoughts get passed form neuron to neuron until they reach their endpoint. If you had people standing in a line passing objects from one end to the other they could only pass one object at a time because we can only reach out with one hand. Imagine the speed at which we could pass things if we had eight arms? That is exactly what your nerve cells are trying to do.
So how long does it take to build up or lose dendrites? Turns out, 4-6 weeks. If you stick with a brain workout you will have significant improvements in 4-6 weeks when it comes to processing. Unfortunately, if we don’t continue to use these new dendrites we lose them. It is the downfall of evolution, physiology is dictated by amount of use. There is an interesting study that shows birds that have a set place to feed everyday compared to their same species counterparts that have to store multiple seed stores throughout a forest have significantly less dendritic growth because they do not have to memorize food locations. They did the same with primates. Monkey in a low environmentally stimulating environment with few social interactions have significantly less dendritic growth than monkeys in an enriched environment, but if switched to the enriched environment their brains would develop more dendrites in 4 weeks.
Neural connections is a great segue into my next topic. The amygdala/prefrontal cortex love/hate relationship.
The amygdala as you now know is our emotional fight or flight response section of the brain. Located in an ancient part of the brain it has been with us for a long time. You can see where it is relation to the prefrontal cortex here….
Which leads us into the role of the prefrontal cortex. This guy is fairly new to the biological world. Primates are currently the only animals who have a developed prefrontal cortex. You can see why in this definition: “The most typical psychological term for functions carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is executive function. Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).”
In other words it is the rational side of our brain that enables to make good decisions based on examination of a problem. It enables us to learn social cues, resolve conflict, and determine good and bad….all things that help us succeed in society.
Can you see why the amygdala and prefrontal cortex don’t get along that well? Picture it like this, when a situation arises these parts of the brain go to work. The amygdala reacts emotionally with the fight or flight style of thinking whereas the PFC tries to run scenarios for best results. Usually, in the heat of the moment, the Amygdala yells loudest and we listen to it. Turns out there is an interesting reason for this. The Amygdala is much older than the PFC and it has enabled us to survive in our early evolutionary days, but as social cues became more important to survival a new structure had to develop, the PFC. Emotional reactions in our current society are bad, they lead to imprisonment, destruction of relationships, loss of jobs, etc. So why is the PFC losing so many battles?
Remember, thoughts are electrical impulses that travel on roadways (neurons) in the brain, well the amygdala has a clear superhighway to the PFC, but the PFC has to take backroads to get back to the amygdala. So when the Amygdala yells out to the prefrontal cortex it gets there in a hurry, but when the PFC tries to talk to the amygdala it has to take the slow route, so it usually loses out. Only when the amygdala has settled down can we start to hear the PFC. This is why we make stupid decisions when we are emotional, we can’t hear our PFC running the various scenarios and outcomes to what is the best choice, not until we “take a few breaths” or “sleep on it” do we find ourselves making good decisions.
I want to make a quick digression. In the court system we differentiate between crime of passion and premeditated. The reasoning I just explained to you regarding the amygdala is why. When a man walks into his house and finds his wife in bed with another man and kills them right then and there he will be charged differently than if he left, went and purchased a gun, followed them, and then killed them. We recognize we make bad decisions in the heat of the moment.
So why can’t we transfer this to racism? It seems the second you breath a racial slur you are a racist. With the evidence I presented to you it is clear that if you are angry and your emotional side is in control and you hurl a sexist or racial slur at the cause of your anger we can see that the person made a bad decision, but might not have meant it. Once the amygdala quiets down and the PFC becomes audible the person may think “damn, I shouldn’t have said that, I was wrong, and I let emotion get the better of me”. Then that is who they truly are, now if they don’t do this, then yes they probably are racist or sexist.
If two people are physically assaulting one another and in the scuffle they use a racial slur it does not necessarily dictate their views on race, or why they are fighting, but we tend to immediately make that the center of attention when, as you can see, it was the unfortunate byproduct of the fight or flight response. Now if the person doesn’t realize what he said was wrong, once his amygdala has quieted down then yes, maybe they are racist or sexist, but do not hold them to their words in the heat of the moment.
But we have all been in situations where we had to apologize for what we said because we knew we were wrong, wouldn’t you prefer to be judged on that than on what you said in the throws of emotion? Don’t be so quick to judge someone based on how they react in an emotional situation, these are the weakest areas of human connections. That is why we love reality shows, we put people into emotional situations that will cause them to react emotionally and without reason. So why are we willing to recognize the different reason for murder, but not the different reasons for perceived racism?
I digress, back to it.
I want to discuss another important hormone that leads to a lot of our behaviors…
This is the fun hormone, it makes us happy so to speak. It is the hormone secreted for reward. So if something is rewarding, dopamine is released. Things like eating, sex, good grades, all can cause dopamine to be released. It is what makes us do that activity again, because theoretically it is good. So we should keep doing it.
This is great evidence to show what a basic system of chemical feedback we truly are. If experience is good for survival, we get a squirt of dopamine.
However dopamine is also responsible for addiction, and you can see why. Amphetamines, cocaine, and really any stimulant, forces the brain to release dopamine. You are rewarded for using the drug, so your brain quickly likes taking the drugs, and quickly recognizes the connection between drug and feeling.
You can also become addicted to people……more in a minute.
If you overuse drugs that force dopamine release constantly you can deplete your dopamine levels and this results in the most common effect, depression. However there are other effects as well….it can lead to restless leg syndrome, burning mouth, and fibromyalgia, which is an all over body pain in the joints and tendons.
It also turns out that addiction is inheritable. Some people can socially use amphetamines with no addiction, and others simply cannot. There is no real evidence to show that addiction is learned, or due to a weakness, but simply due to how the biochemistry of our reward system works. People who are addicts, whether it be drugs, alcohol, sex, or gambling all have the exact same brain chemistry going on.
In fact there are many cases of Parkinson’s patients becoming gambling addicts. A treatment for the shaking associated with the disease is dopamine injections. One case of an older woman who had parkinson’s disease who began taking the injections began to gamble more and more, soon she had a full blown addiction, lost her savings, her house, went into debt, the whole nine yards. No one thought it was the dopamine, until some research was done.
As soon as they took her off dopamine her addiction vanished.
So, how do we change it? The brain is plastic, it can be re-sculpted. If you have ever lost, or broken up with someone you love, and you are still alive, then you have essentially went through the same mechanics you would use in kicking a chemical addiction, because, as you are learning, it is all chemical. A person you love can also trigger the release of dopamine, if you have had pleasurable intercourse with them, then you just upped the chemical connection to them. If you spent years with them, then you are now talking a full blown chemical addiction to a person.
In a recent study by Dr. Lucy Brown she stated “
“The more dopamine you get, the more of a high you feel,” Dr. Brown says.
Or as her colleague, Dr. Helen Fisher put it: When you fall in love, “exactly the same system becomes active as when you take cocaine. You can feel intense elation when you’re in love. You can feel intense elation when you’re high on cocaine.”
So the physiological reaction to the two are one and the same. If you can get over a person, you can get over gambling, a drug, whatever. It is not easy, but it is possible. You just need to re-scuplt and rewire the brain. Using the grey box tactic I gave you before is one way. But I am trying out another.
Willpower is like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets, but if you spend a few hours having to use intense willpower then you will be more likely to give in later because you weakened your ability. This is the reason people often ”cave in” to affairs. At first they can control seeing the person, but the more willpower they use around the person the less willpower they have for later. So how do we strengthen willpower and re-wire our brain at the same time?
Brushing our teeth with the opposite hand.
Yes, if you can’t stick to a diet, can’t resist a drug, can’t stop cheating, then try this. My thought is two-fold. First tooth brushing is something we have been doing the same way our whole life, it is, essentially one of the most hardwired habits we have. So if each morning you get up, look in the mirror and focus on using your opposite hand you will essentially be rewiring your brain. You are making it more malleable, more open to change. Now as you are doing this I want you to think about whatever it is you are trying to accomplish and what you need to do. Even as simple as repeating “I won’t eat sugar today”.
If the science is correct you should see changes in your thinking in as little as two to three weeks, but more likely four to six weeks. But you can’t stray from it, because as you have learned, when you do, you fall back into old habits.
The brain is a powerful tool, but so few of us know how to truly take advantage of its ability. But as we understand it more and more the power to manipulate it increases as well. I will not openly admit that I have used methods to stimulate biochemical reactions in people when I am looking for a specific result. If you have a good working knowledge of what stimuli causes which hormones to be released you can have a greater influence on people, but why making sure the person you want to ask out is holding hot coffee or tea when you talk to them is for a different post.
For now, I want you to spend some time with you and begin to try and focus on your brain. It has been controlling you for most of your life and it is about time for you to take control.