The brain: building resilience

When the brain is working properly you will be grounded, happy, self-aware, decisive, passionate, magnetic, clear-thinking and focused on achieving your goals. But more than this you will be resilient – able to ride all the disasters that come your way and overcome what people used to call ‘stress’.

In this article I summarize the mind-skills you need to practice to make your brain work properly.

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How exercise changes the brain

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When working with clients who have anxiety or depression I ask them to do some hard exercise at least once a day.

My reason for asking that is that I know that exercise improves mood. Several studies show that 30 minutes daily aerobic exercise was as – if not more – effective than anti-depressants in depressed patients. We also know that exercise fosters endorphin release – which counteracts anxiety.

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How to improve your mood with Tyrosine

Chemical

I received a big post following my first article in the current series on Addictions and it seems there is a high demand for a series like this.

Why? Are addictions to drugs and alcohol a bigger problem than we realise?

Meanwhile, one reader would like to know what people can do about it if they have Dopamine deficiency. Depletions can occur genetically in the brains of some people, although they are more common in habitual drinkers and drug users. However, if you suspect your mood is low, or that some of your cravings are running away with you, or that you could just do with a boost then there is no harm in trying a Tyrosine supplement for a few days.

Typical symptoms include:

  • Loss of interest/pleasure in activities
  • Chronic boredom
  • Lethargy
  • Agitation/restlessness
  • Poor concentration
  • Low mood

In my view Dopamine depletion is sometimes mistaken for Serotonin deficiency, which occurs in clinical depression and I wonder that this subject has not been explored in greater depth in developing treatments for depression.

There is a natural way to boost Dopamine levels and that is to consume Tyrosine, an amino-acid which the body uses to synthesise Dopamine in the brain. It is also helpful to take vitamin B6 with Tyrosine supplements as this enables the body to break down the Tyrosine faster.

Tyrosine is also found in soy, chicken, fish, avocado pear, bananas, milk, cheese, yogurt, nuts, pumpkin seeds and in sesame seeds.

I have worked with several cocaine addicts who have found Tyrosine and Vitamin B6 helpful in reducing cravings and restoring mood levels.

I would be interested in hearing from any readers who have tried Tyrosine supplements, or Tyrosine-rich diets.

 

How empathy works

Wizard
As I wrote in a previous article mirror neuron research is now showing us how the brain ‘reads’ other people. For example, it is now becoming clear that when we watch other peoples’ facial expressions those areas of the brain which are populated with mirror neurons show greater activity. Suggesting that we are scanning those facial expressions in order to match the relevant emotions implied by the expressions with our own. Similar findings apply to hand gestures and lip movements, which correlate to other types of non-verbal communication.

Meanwhile, other research (most carried out on monkeys but sometimes on humans) shows that mirror neurons also light up when we are trying to work out the intention behind a behaviour. For example, when a wired-up subject is shown a film of someone picking up a cup from a table the mirror neurons light up, presumably because the individual is trying to work out whether the intention is to drink from the cup or just clear the table.

What is still more interesting is that monkeys (and people) who excel at interpreting facial expressions, emotions, attitudes and intentions have highly-active mirror-neuron systems. Simply because the more you practice the bigger the growth in the cells within the system.

The bottom-line is that most of us are born with a built-in capacity for empathy right from birth. It is not something we learn (although practice improves ability). And this skill underpins many other things that make us uniquely human: social interaction, interpreting spoken communication, compassion, altruism and ethical behaviour. In short, everything we now call emotional intelligence.

 

 

 

 

How the brain mirrors other people

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The discovery of mirror neurons in the brain 15 or so years ago has transformed our understanding of how children learn and how adults ‘read’ other people.

Mirror neurons are groups of nerve cells in the brain that fire if either the person sees someone else doing something and if that person does the same thing. For example, if you observe someone else smile then the mirror neurons will signal; if you smile yourself then those same neurons will also fire. Which implies that your brain is set up to ‘mirror’ other peoples’ behavour so that you can adopt it, understand it, or implement it yourself.

Which tells us a number of other interesting things:

  • Firstly, the brain is set up so that it can temporarily adopt the point of view of another person and extract information about what that person is trying and to do and why they are doing it.
  • Secondly we now know more about how humans learn. As everybody knows very young children learn by imitation. What we now know is that when children copy adult behaviour their brains automatically encode that behaviour so that they can mimic it within seconds. One reason why children learn so fast. And, also, why new cultural fads – slang, dress styles and gestures like the ‘high five’ – spread so rapidly amongst adults.
  • Thirdly, it has now become a lot easier to understand how most human beings can read other people so fast. If the brain contains neurons that simulate other peoples’ activities: their facial expressions, speech, gestures, movements and emotions then it will only take a split second for the brain to ‘read’ someone, even when you don’t know, consciously, that you are doing it. For example, your Headmind might, superficially, assume that someone you meet for the first time is nice, charming and interested in your welfare. Meanwhile Bodymind, using it’s mirror neurons, is taking a deeper assessment. It might notice, for example, that the eyes flicker elsewhere while you are talking, take in that slightly dismissive wave of the hand, that his smile fades away a split-second too short. Within moments your body is coming up with uncomfortable feelings while the conscious mind is carrying on with the conversation in the belief that all is well.

One weakness of traditional psychology is that it tries to explain how people learnt about other peoples’ intentions in terms of logic. Meaning that if the people you meet obeyed social conventions in terms of saying the right things, smiling in the right places, putting their arm around your shoulders, etc, then they might be ok. But Bodymind may know different. Which leads to a conflict between your ‘feel’ about other people compared  to what you think you may know about them. But because Bodymind uses intuitions rather than words to communicate to you those insights may be over-ridden by Headmind as ‘illogical’. To your lasting cost.

 

 

Image by  SashaW

How the body ‘thinks’

 

Skeleton Since the Greeks started writing about it intelligence has generally been assumed to be in the head. But one of the great advances last century – thanks to MRI scanners which enable us to look inside the Brain, as well as the neuro-endocrine systems, we have a much more informed picture. Which tells us that intelligence is distributed over the whole body. In fact we are now able to identify several ‘brains’ throughout the body:

1 The solar plexus (often called the ‘second brain’) controls the Autonomic nervous system. Which, in turn, governs, heart rate, digestion, muscular function, as well as creating the physical sensations that form the basis of emotion.

2 The endocrine system – which includes the pituitary, pineal, thyroid, pancreas, thymus, adrenal and sexual glands – is controlled by the Hypothalamus. Since each of the glands use hormones to control such diverse functions as energy transfer, metabolism, sleep, growth, protection against infection, and temperature control, we can see that the Hypothalamus is a brain inside the Brain

3 The Immune system itself is another centre of intelligence. There are approximately 2 trillion immune cells in the body. Some of these track invading cells and ‘remember’ what they look like. Others hunt them down, while others kill them. Meanwhile other cells keep a watchful eye on rogue cells which split away from the rest and become cancerous. Still more cells float up and down to the brain and provide updates on the current state of play.

4. Candace Pert – one of our best writers on this subject – tells us that each and every cell in the body is not only intelligent, but conscious too, in the sense that it can independently make decisions on the communications it sends to other cells. There are approximately 10 trillion cells in the body. Yet each of those cells signals, on average, to at least 10,000 other cells every day. Which means that your body created 10,000,000,000 messages today (that’s one hundred thousand trillion pieces of information).

So what does the main brain actually do if most of the ‘thinking’ is going on either elsewhere in the body or in response to decisions taken by the cells. Mostly it is Headmind stuff. Making up stories about what happened to you after Bodymind took the decision for you. Or analyzing, checking, worrying, doing guilt while living as if Bodymind didn’t exist!

Meanwhile, Bodymind goes on ‘thinking’ without much reference to you.

Here are some examples of the way in which Bodymind thinking works in practice:

• The body can ‘read’ other people and simulate an emotion that person is having so that you or I can empathize with them. In that way a mother can quickly tell what mood her child is in. This is also the basis for the human quality of compassion for others, even animals. Our intuitions about other people work in a similar way. Using sensory information, the brain picks up signals from the other person’s body language and – using a process that works in less than a tenth of a second – pattern-matches those signals against information stored from past experiences. That is why we can have a gut feeling that someone is not trustworthy within two minutes of meeting her without knowing why. The body is using coded signals to alert us to a potential problem.

• In collaboration with the thinking centers the brain can decide what is important or not important. If something is important to us we might get an adrenalin rush. If it is not we will feel nothing at all. Research into people with damage to the frontal areas of the brain (which decode emotion) show that they are unable to make decisions because they don’t have a good or bad feeling that tells them the right decision to make. Knowing what is important also helps Bodymind conserve energy. We can go without sleep if we are trying to achieve something really important. Conversely, if there is little for us to do, Bodymind can send us to sleep early. Or it could turn on the emotion of boredom to signal that it’s time to do something more interesting.

• The body can strengthen a relationship by releasing hormones – such as oxytocin – connected to love. Sometimes this is automatic, as when a a child is born. Sometimes it comes with time as we learn more about the other person. The emotions of love are, as almost all of us know, powerful and sometimes overwhelming.

• The brain uses sleep time to organize memories from the day just gone. It stores what is important and deletes the rest. It also creates dreaming states in order to work through the emotions that come with different experiences. This is one reason why insomniacs have poor concentration – they are overloaded with undigested experiences.

• Bodymind grounds us to life. It does this firstly through our moods. At any given moment the body is monitoring where we are, who we are with and what we are doing, and providing us with a running commentary on our relationship with the environment. Moods aren’t emotions but they are feeling states which work closely with our thoughts. The most well-known mood is the depressed state, which goes with discouragement and sadness. But others include exhilaration, calm, determination, discontent and the feeling of being ‘under pressure’. Most often, moods are hardly noticeable and form a kind of background hum which is constantly shifting as we go through the flow of the day.

Bodymind uses symptoms of various kinds to warn, guide and protect us from harm. This point is more clearly explained by Reverse Therapy.

• Another way the body grounds us to life is through the sense of awe: we are connected to nature, to the divine, and to life itself by the unspeakable sense that we are serving a purpose higher than ourselves. In that way Bodymind intelligently motivates us to make the best we can of our abilities and to serve others. It fosters your Personal Genius.

 

14 facts about the brain

Head Your body contains at least 60 trillion cells. Yet your brain contains ‘only’ 60 billion cells, just 0.001% of the total. Proof that the ‘mind’ isn’t just inside your skull.

Each cell carries, on average 7000 connections to other cells. Therefore the number of cell networks in the brain is 42 thousand billion, or 42,000,000000,000 pieces of information your brain can, store.

Yet your brain only weighs 3 pounds and uses just 10-23 watts of energy per day. That is less than the energy in three bananas.

Each year you will lose about 3.3 million brain cells. But that is less than 0.00000006% of the total. And nearly all of it is replaced, right on up until old age.

There is no truth in the myth that we only use 10% of brain power. The entire brain is being used every day, even if some areas of the brain are there only for storage or for back-up functions.

Super memory. The brain is capable of storing 10 trillion bits of information about you and your life experiences. 

The brain can make its own ‘heroin’. Endorphins are released in the Hypothalamus after vigorous physical exercise, injury, meditation, laughter and chocolate. Endorphins are up to 19 times stronger than morphine. By contrast, heroin is only 7 times stronger than morphine.

Being happy is good for the brain. Happy states trigger dopamine release, a feel-good chemical. Personal fulfilment increases neuroplasticity, slows down ageing and improves memory.

Why is adolescence so difficult? One main reason is that, between puberty and early adulthood, the brain is being rebuilt. There is massive growth in the pre-frontal cortex (Headmind); connections between cell networks are being hard-wired (making emotional life-lessons more intense); and there is a temporary loss of connection between the brain’s emotional centres (the limbic system) and the intellectual centres – which means that teenagers lack the capacity to make good decisions.

New experiences are vital for improved brain function. Getting out of the rut and going for new horizons increases cell growth, delays ageing and improves cell connectivity. The same goes when you let go of the past and exercise forgiveness.

Binge-eating. Emotional self-neglect can lead to food cravings and over-eating. So-called stress triggers an increase in Cortisol in the blood stream, which stimulates Insulin release. High insulin levels are associated with a craving for sugary foods and foods high in carbohydrates.

Regular sex (at least twice a week) improves daily moods, reduces pain thresholds, cuts the risk of a heart attack, decreases menstrual pain and promotes sleep. This is because enjoyable sex fosters high endorphin release.

Love and sex can be addictive. Falling in love, like sexual infatuation) is similar to taking cocaine: the hypothalamus triggers a cascade of dopamine. One problem is that, once the dopamine wears off, a ‘down-mood’ sets in, leading to further cravings.

The brain also contains a bonding chemical: Oxytocin. During labour, female brains produce large amounts of oxytocin, which stimulates contractions and smooths the passage of the baby down the birth canal. Oxytocin also creates a primal, intense bond with the child. Adults in love (or during ecstatic sex) also release high levels of oxytocin.