Your Brain On Rosie: Reaction Meets Thought

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Imagine:


    You are at home, watching your favorite Fox News talking head tell you there is no such thing as global warming. There is a knock on the door. It's Rosie O'Donnell. Do you invite her in or call the police?



    Here's the situation. Yesterday, while walking your dog, she jumped out from behind a tree and told you she's lonely.


    Think of the brain as responding to whatever life throws your way. What now?


    The rational thinking part of the brain - the cortical region - is going to be way too slow. You need to turn executive control over to the limbic system, situated in the interior of the brain. Think of the limbic system as the first responders to the scene. The limbic system is built for quick action. This is where fight or flight originates, along with other primal actions and reactions.

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    The limbic system is where the amygdala is located. Think of the amygdala as a smoke alarm. While your rational brain is still stretching and yawning, the amygdala is hard at work pulling information imprinted in the limbic or emotional, memory - the hippocampus. The hippocampus is telling the amygdala that you have had very bad experiences in the past with women who say they are lonely.


    Drama queens, bunny-boilers - this is why you don't go to stalker movies.




    That's all you need to know. The amygdala sounds the alarm. Instantly, your fight or flight response kicks in. You're operating on pure reflex now. You slam the door on Rosie and bolt it and run like hell to the guest bathroom and lock yourself in.




    Your rational brain is coming on line. You need to think things through. You're safe for now, but a clear and present danger is lurking outside. You need your cortical areas back in charge, but you also need to stay alert and focused. Your rational brain, with the support of certain subcortical regions, tells the amygdala to heel, but to stay watchful. Your entire holistic mind-body connection settles down.


    Hmm, you think. Out through the bathroom window? No you decide. Rosie's probably headed that way right now. The heating duct, then ...




    What I just described was a perfectly normal brain responding to a terrifying situation in a perfectly normal way. But what if that had been the UPS man at the door or your best friend and you had reacted the same way?


    Let's go with a less extreme example. Your boss says he wants to see you in his office right now. Do you perform a quick memory scan for the latest sales figures you know he needs or do you start to panic because you're sure he is going to fire you?


    A lot of us are genetically programmed to view life as threatening. We live in fear. What's going on?


    For one, maybe our smoke alarm sends out way too many false alarms. Numerous brain and genetic studies have linked an oversensitive and overactive amygdala to no end of behaviors and mood states, from anxiety to depression to aggression to mania, and on and on.


    Maybe certain subcortical areas lack the means to modulate the limbic system. Maybe our rational brain is thinking irrationally to begin with. Our thoughts are not always as organized as we wish. Or maybe our rational brain lacks the necessary muscle to wrestle control back from the limbic system. Again, the brain and gene studies make fascinating reading.


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    We're talking about a system fault in the brain, maybe a series of system faults. While some of us are resilient to whatever life throws our way, a lot of us tend to be vulnerable.


    Every day, researchers are turning up yet more evidence of how the interplay between the limbic and cortical regions - in response to the environment and life experience - accounts for just about all of our behavior, good and bad, including mental illness.


    Reaction meets thought. Over-reaction meets irrational thinking. Worlds collide.


    Fortunately, we're not hardwired for disaster. By knowing thyself, we can work on our recovery right now. Stress-reduction is an obvious start. To quote from a talk I will be giving at the DBSA conference in Orlando in ten days:


    "We learn to avoid the stress we can avoid and learn to manage the stress we can't avoid. We choose our friends carefully. We structure our work carefully. We work to make our lives as regular and predictable as we can.


    "If we get stressed out around people, we learn various people skills to reduce our stress. If our mind churns out erroneous thoughts, we learn new cognitive techniques.


    "In addition, we may learn yoga, we learn meditation, breathing exercises."


    I also have a lot to say about mindfulness. then I wrap it up:


    "All this takes time and we're never going to be masters.


    "But the payoff is that with practice, we can actually nudge our limbic and cortical systems into some kind of workable alignment. The brain is dynamic. It is always laying down new roadwork, and we have the brain studies to prove it.


    "And what I really find fascinating about all this is that modern brain science is actually validating ancient recovery techniques. ...


    "We are not helpless bystanders. We can literally shape our own recovery.


    "Know thyself. Live well."




    I will be speaking at two sessions at the DBSA conference in Orlando, being held Aug 10-12. I look forward to seeing you there, and to meeting as many of you as I can.


    For registration and program details, please check out the DBSA website.


Published On: July 31, 2007