Your Brain On Mr Wrong: Cortex in Thrall to Limbic

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I'm a bit outside of my area of expertise here. I'm going to try to explain the workings of the brain from a woman's perspective. Here goes:


    Your hot date is due to show up in five minutes. On your last date, he transported you into realms you never knew existed, and your dopamine has been firing red hot ever since. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Dopamine neurons - that is, brain cells that fire dopamine neurotransmitters - project from the mid-brain into the limbic system, and the cortical and subcortical regions.


    In other words, dopamine influences the areas of the brain involved in emotions, thinking, and modulation, respectively. This is a tad oversimplified, but let's go with it.

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    Your limbic system is ready to party, and the subcortical regions are resonating in harmony. Meanwhile, those brainy neurons up in the cortex are anticipating another night of splendiferous transcendent ecstasy.


    What's wrong with this picture?


    For one, the guy is married. He's only been clean for six weeks, he doesn't have a job, and he's in trouble with his parole officer. You know this. You need to call this off right now.


    Unfortunately, the part of the brain that is supposed to be in charge - the thinking brain - is in thrall to the emotional brain. Cortex is not about to override limbic. Worse than that, cortex is rationalizing limbic. You probably know the routine:


    "He's so sweet. His wife doesn't love him. He's going to take good care of me ..."


    Cortex, please! Get a grip!


    "... I know he has a checkered past, but I can change him. I'm going to marry him ..."


    No! No! Stop it right now!


    "... I want to have his baby."


    And they say it's men who don't think with their brains.


    Five minutes go by. Mr Right Now is not here right now. A new emotion starts to creep in. Anxiety. Limbic and cortical via subcortical are feverishly exchanging messages: "Maybe he won't show up ... No don't worry about it ... "


    Another five minutes, ten. There you are pacing in your $500 Prada stilettos: He should have called by now. "Has he dumped me? Maybe I'm not good enough."


    Limbic is cranking up your fight or flight response. The adrenaline is starting to pump, cortisol is entering the blood stream. Your dopamine is still popping, but it's starting to drive a new emotion, anger.


    "Damnit! Why hasn't he called!"


    Ten, fifteen minutes go by. You're not about to greet lover boy with a wet kiss. There's still the prospect of make-up sex ...


    Another fifteen minutes. No jury would ever convict you.


    An hour goes by. You're spent, emotionally drained. You're slumped on the sofa, Prada shoes on the floor where the dog can chew them. The adrenaline has receded, your dopamine has depleted, along with other key neurotransmitters. Cortisol is still kicking around in the system. You are in a state of despair, utter hopelessness, self-esteem at an all-time low. You are depressed.


    In the space of two hours, you went from anticipation and pleasure to low anxiety to high anxiety to low anger to high anger to depression. Same steam, different vents.


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    Fortunately, most people's brains self-correct. The brain scientists (and environmentalists) have a term for this. It's called homeostasis. You'll have a good cry, help yourself to some Ben and Jerry's, and maybe the bottle above the fridge, and wake up five pounds fatter and with a hangover, but with your depression starting to recede.


    But what if the brain doesn't self-correct? There's a term for this, too - allostasis. The brain can't handle the load. It fails to self-correct. You stay depressed. Or the stress may flip you into mania. Or you may obsess on disturbed thoughts. You may explode on people. You may keep seeking the bottle for comfort. You may want to harm yourself. You may even induce psychosis.


    As I mentioned in a previous blog, our brains are all about how we respond to whatever life throws our way. And how we respond has to do with how the limbic, cortical, and subcortical regions of the brain get along. Reaction meets thought. Over-reaction meets irrational thinking. Worlds collide.


    Our genes may render us more vulnerable than the rest of the population, but we're not entirely helpless. One tool we can use is mindfulness. To quote from a talk I will be giving at the DBSA conference in Orlando in one week:


    "In the context of our illness, mindfulness involves being microscopically attuned to subtle shifts in our moods and energy levels and stress levels and behaviors. We need to pick these up before our clinicians do, or our friends and family.


    "For instance, if you spot yourself sleeping less or getting angry more, you need to do something about it right away, while the situation is manageable, before your mind spirals out of control. Often, the solution may be as simple as ‘stopping to smell the roses' or in getting a good night's sleep."


    But it also pays to know we are not perfect. We all do dumb things, and as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow (well, maybe not in Seattle) we will keep doing dumb things. But at least you're smart enough to give Mr Wrong a pointy-toed kick to the part where it hurts most.


    What's this? Flowers at the door? Two dozen fresh long-stemmed roses! "Of course! It was all a misunderstanding! He really does love me!"


    Cortex! No! Get a grip!




    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: August 02, 2007