The halloween special-The fear fest in the brain

Ever wondered why Americans spend millions each year for Halloween. What is it about the creeps that drives our brains?

The answer to this is as old as our ancestral roots go.

Our primitive brain is programmed to experience fear. How is this important ? Fear drives adaptation…. The ultimate purpose of evolution as we know is the survival of the fittest and propagation of our species. How to we achieve this through fear mechanisms… partly by being on guard and building defense mechanisms. Inorder to do this we need to experience danger either first hand or thro’ people around us. This is important for survival and producing offspring.

Upon encountering a dangerous situation, the fear response center in our brain, the ‘amygdala” first jumps into action, consults with the “hippocampus” where previous experiences are stored  and then the “cortex” which ultimately makes the decision to act upon the trigger (flight or fight).

Depending on what the brain concludes about the situation our body reacts to it, what we commonly call as the adrenaline response which is again initiated by the hypothalamus in response to signals from other regions of the brain. This adrenaline activates our sympathetic nervous system. Our muscles get all the attention , and are primed to confront or escape from danger. This is accompanied by increased lung function and heart rate. We focus better, withstand pain,and make quick decisions. At the same time all of these things are ramping up, other body systems are delayed or shut down. All other unnecessary responses are shut down. For ex: Peeing in your pants is one way of eliminating the need for attention to your bladder.

Do all these horrific movies and hauntings just trigger the fear mechanism ??…of course “NO”… comeon who would spend all that $$ for  getting afraid. Yes!! there is euphoria attached to these feelings of intense fear. Why ??Because the neurotransmitter dopamine is also activated by intense situations. Dopamine stimulates the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, enabling us to anticipate and seek rewards. So, it helps having controlled scary situations that aren’t truly dangerous. Us being in that scary situation and coming unscathed out of it, is a shortcut to get an adrenaline and dopamine “rush”.

We are all neurotransmitter junkies. We have the irrepressible urge to seek out adventures, survive, learn and propagate our genes. Humans who were proficient at hunting, finding or stealing mates from enemies, and were nomadic survived. Those who maintained status quo perished.

It’s the same instinct that drives our needs to break from stable situations and seek adventure. Contemporary psychologists label this personality trait “sensation seeking”.  The elite group of sensation seekers love high-intensity music, gory art, drugs, extreme sports, speeding, promiscuity, video games and x-rated movies. Most of us  on the moderate side , enjoy these activities occasionally ….

So celebrate Halloween and “SURVIVE”


Tell your dopamine…I will,I won’t, I want

In the quest to find answers to my own self confessed addiction to social media..I scoured some self help sites and books…Even looked for a book titled “Social media deaddiction for dummies”–Sorry I just made that up.  However I did come across this book “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal. Although I am not a big fan of self help books this one has certain pointers that will set you thinking about making positive changes and sticking to them. The author combines the latest research in different disciplines like psychology, economics, neuroscience, and medicine, to explain what willpower is, how it works, and why it matters.  People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are healthier, happier, have more satisfying relationships, and make more money (Boy did I like that). She emphasizes that temptation and stress hijack the brain’s systems of self-control but the brain can be trained for greater willpower.

The key is to avoid impulsivity: Our emotional brain (amygdala) works ten times faster than our rational brain (pre frontal cortex) and also conveys information faster : compare a flood to a trickle. These emotional dynamics drive our behavior. If we learn how to avoid reacting to these initial impulses the rational brain gets sufficient time to click in and check the behavior.


Since I need to go right away and check the message updates on my phone I will recommend another awesome read for people who are interested in getting over the social media addiction . “What makes your brain happy and why you should do the opposite –By David Di Salvo”. My upcoming blogs will discuss different types of addictions and unravel the hidden mysteries and quirks of the brain.


The dopamine “pop” and the social brain

Admit it!! some of us folks are permanently logged in to our facebook and twitter accounts on our iphones, ipads and androids…..We all involve in some form of trivial conversations in whatever form… either facts or gossip ..because it is part of our social structure , our constant need for validation and  a way to fit in. This validation is a reward mechanism present even in lower species in varied forms of expression…for ex: experimental rats or mice hitting a lever to get a food reward..The common ground being the mouse hits the lever for the reward and we hit the facebook and twitter app or the “like” button to get our high by either validating our social group’s comments or promoting our own needs for attention. What’s happening in the brain during these clicks?  The answer lies in a neurotransmitter or brain chemical called dopamine..The very chemical that is released during sex, a first kiss, at the sight of food or the sight of money. The more novel the object that elicits it the more greater the response. This chemical binds to it’s receptors in the reward centers of the brain causing a temporary sense of euphoria. This is similar to what most drugs of abuse like cocaine and heroin do.. The euphoric feeling is addictive and we keep going back for it .. The reward pathway in addition to releasing Dopamine also activates our opioid system (the system involved in pain relief) which further bolsters the euphoric feeling. This is the very reason that people in withdrawal from drug use experience pain or increased sensitivity to painful stimuli. Going of on a tangent here it is now known that people who enjoy extreme sports like skydiving, base jumping etc have a less than normal levels of dopamine release in their brain and in order to get the requisite levels they need to engage in high adrenaline inducing activities.

Socially speaking we are at the mercy of our brains…but there are certain groups of people who can control this emotional and social hijacking by the brain..How do they do that? I will be discussing that aspect in my next blog.


The altruistic brain

A week ago I had an interesting discussion with some of my colleagues about “Altruism” The Mirriam Webster dictionary defines it as—a) an unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of other and b) behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.

The inevitable question popped up as part of the discussion ..Why would something like Altruism exist in an evolutionary context. Isn’t evolution build on the premise of the “Selfish gene” , “the survival of the fittest” the relentless need to establish oneself as a successful gene pool sometimes at the expense of others.

Look at other species around you. Studies on Eusocial insects like bees and ants show extreme altruism. In honey bees a worker commits altruistic suicide if they become cognizant of some sort of decrease in their own health and vitality, whether by fungal infection, CO2 exposure or even to defend their nest. This is also seen with ants. Having said that most of these eusocial worker bees and ants are sterile so evolutionarily insignificant since reproduction and perpetuation of species is an integral part of classical evolution. Is altruism justified in this case??

Is “Altruism” really what it means or just another covert evolutionary trick?? Fueled by the discussion I scanned the internet to see what other folks had to say about it and I chanced upon some interesting reads. One of them talks about the “Brain effects of altruism”. Apparently functional MRI studies have shown that altruism is good mix of personal gain and selfless giving.

In the first study the subjects were given no choice over the fact that money was coming out of their bank accounts for charity or they could donate to the charity willingly. When they had no choice actually activated the pleasure centres of the brain one of the brain effects of altruism and the latter when they were given a choice to donate willingly this region was even brighter on the scans. So conclusion 1: Altruism is “pleasurable”.

In the next experiment subjects were hooked up with a computer, and a video game. They either had to watch the computer play the game or play it themselves. For every successful game money would be donated to a charity. Surprisingly the emotional centers of the brain were activated along with the previous pleasure centers when the subject watche dthe computer navigate through difficult parts of the game almost being empathic with the computer despite of the fact that it was an inanimate object. On the other hand when they played it themselves this region was not active indicating disconcern for their performance/ themselves. Conclusion 2 of the expt: People “care more about others” than themselves even when the other is an inanimate object.


Does watching out for others ensure your own survival? Is this what drives our instincts to watch out for others? As they say “What goes around comes around.”

What are the neurochemical changes in the brain that determine self promoting acts and altruistic one…are they the same ??

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Twitter, evolution and the selfish brain

I was reading this interesting article in the Atlantic by Frank Rose. It was about a research published by Harvard neuroscientists as to why we like to talk about ourselves using social media. The article has an interesting title “The Selfish Me me” -Twitter, Dopamine and the evolutionary advantages of talking about oneself..The study performed a series of behavioral experiments and brain scans and concluded that when humans share opinions about themselves, the reward center of the brain or the mesolimbic dopamine system is activated. On the contrary sharing someone else’  opinions or feelings did not show similar levels of activation . Voila!! self-disclosure activated the very same brain regions as food, sex and money does. Not surprising why we crave for it. The researchers also concluded that this confers an evolutionary advantage on us. Like playing a slot machine checking e mails or twitter send the primitive animal brain into a new high, anticipating a reward. It is similar to hunting for food .. keeps us goal and reward focussed and keeps us coming back for more. Apparently by telling stories effectively, we improve our status, get social feedback and deepen bonds…and well the discovery process is shared and it benefits all of us.. so why not get hooked on ourselves…

The next time your feeling low get onto twitter or facebook and speak volumes about yourself..

Here is some food for thought..

1) Are narcissists/politicians dopamine junkies..well don’t they do it all the time?? – talk about themselves..

This is the selfish side of evolution tomorrow I would like to take the discussion in the opposite direction- Altruism …What happens in our brains then and how does it fit into the evolutionary scheme of things…

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Neuroscience in daily life

Every minute of my life I cannot help but wonder what a wonderful thing the human brain is.  For instance, at this very moment I am baffled by it’s capacity to help me put my thoughts into words, concise as it maybe. However, inspite of all our efforts to understand “How the brain works?” the answer remains elusive. I keep thinking… Shouldn’t this be a “no-brainer”. 

Could not help sharing this quote. After all laughter is the best medicine and that definitely is a “no-brainer”.

The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.

Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)