Becoming a Better User of the Brain

Written by Marja on June 30th, 2014


A Glimpse into Recreational Neuroscience

Hormones. We readily accept that some behavior is influenced by brain chemistry. One phrase we often hear is about menstruating or pregnant women, “That’s just hormones talkin’.” This piece of brain trivia confuses as much as it may placate because the idea that certain phases are “hormonal” creates false opposition between a chemically manipulated female brain and an unalterable male brain. The truth is, testosterone changes male behavior as dramatically as estrogen does, but an aggressive male is not usually thought of as being “hormonal.” Though a woman’s neuro-chemical makeup has a more regular cycle than a man’s, why think in terms of being “hormonal” and the rest of the time… “normal?”

The goal of recreational neuroscience is to understand mental function more precisely. The question shouldn’t be “are the hormones talking?” The question should be, “what are they saying and who is doing the talking?”

The Language of Limbic System vs the Prefrontal Cortex

As you learn to detect these elegant chemical illocutions, you start to recognize how much is really going on inside your head. You realize that the emotion you feel may not

be a response to the world at the moment, but rather a lively cast of chemical characters. Finding out what they are saying and knowing where they live in your brain may help to understand emotions more clearly. Let’s first examine the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex since it is useful to know when the limbic system is having a word and when you are actively sorting out information.

Paul Maclean’s “Triune Brain” theory is a good place to start. Proposed half a century ago, Maclean’s vision of the brain’s organization is both an evolutionary story and a topographical one. His theory describes the brain as an archaeological site that resembles a series of settlements stacked one on top of the other. The deeper you dig, the father you go back in time.

At the deepest level, the reptilian brain also known as the brain stem controls the body’s basic metabolic functions. Like heart rate and breathing, the brain stem is instinctive and primitive like a reptile. It is incapable of emotional complexity or any genuine thought reacting purely on self-preservation..

The second layer in the triune brain is known as the paleo-mammalian brain or the limbic system. This is the seat of emotion and memory, consisting chiefly in the regions of the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus. Our primary emotions, mostly fear and anger emerge from this territory and can be highly reactive. Incoming stimuli charged with emotional associations of the past are expressed in the hippocampus or the amygdala.

Stacked on top of the brain stem and the limbic system is the neocortex. Consisting of two hemispheres that spread across the surface of the brain, it is most distinctly considered the highest and most evovled human component of the brain’s architecture. The neocortex is in use when actions are deliberate. For instance, when processing long-term interests or communicating complex sentences or abstract thought. These hallmarks of intelligence require a conscious effort, not like the reactive or emotional associations of the deeper systems.

Maclean’s model has fared remarkably well over the past fifty years. His basic evolutionary story and the movement from brain stem to neocortex is now widely accepted.

What we know about the intelligent brain (neocortex) or “base instincts” with a strange life of its own, (limbic system) is that the “rational” you and an “emotional” you aren’t always in sync. Brain science has now given us more accurate descriptions of these two sides of a personality now mapped within specific regions of the brain.

What these insights can do for self-awareness is that they can help us see our interactions with a new clarity and detect long-term patterns or split-second instincts that might otherwise go unnoticed because they operate below a conscious level. Sometimes it’s because we’re so familiar with certain limbic patterns that they’re taken for granted.

That said, neuroscience is as relevant to the healthy individual as it is to the mentally ill. Those of us wrestling with the small triumphs and tragedies of everyday life can benefit as much as those who are battling more forbidding demons. Knowing something about your own brain can be as valuable as any therapy or drug and realizing that our emotions are the felt sum of dozens of neuro-chemical changes can make it easier to inhabit your head.

The last few decades of research has revealed the way life experiences wire the brain as meticulously as genes do. A memory can transform a perception of the present especially when it gets rewritten into a new associative context. This happens every time it is activated by revisiting a thought. In other words, when we remember something, we create a new memory that’s shaped by the changes that have happened since the memory last occurred. Every time it is recalled, it carries more weight. The problem is that this associative process could limit or derange one’s perception of the present. Understanding the impact of past events on the present illuminates a more useful path from the limbic system to the neocortex.

Once you start to recognize when the limbic system is talking, it starts to pop out at you as clear as a headache or a dizzy spell. That knowledge certainly can make you feel like a more discriminating user of the brain.

But, if understanding brain chemistry were simply a matter of observing effects and memorizing the nomenclature, it would be no more than cocktail party chit-chat. There’s just so much more to the neuro-map, but  despite this vast and complex field, it is still worthwhile to learn some basics about brain chemistry. Not that you can erase the side effects of a hormone or a neurotransmitter just by understanding it, but you can put it in context, and anticipate the way in which it could alter your judgement. That conscious awareness (or intelligence) has the capacity to intercept behavior in a profound way. To become a better user of the brain, let’s take a look at the heavy hitters:

Serotonin plays a key role in “rejection sensitivity.” Low serotonin rejection sensitivity hinders the ability to take risks that might actually make life better. For instance, Prozac increases serotonin and as a result, vulnerabilities fade. In other words, small slights and minor social disappointments roll off one’s shoulders more easily.

Dopamine is more like a pleasure accountant than a pleasure drug. It monitors expectations and anticipates rewards. Low dopamine can induce cravings and addictions or intensify hunger. It also propels us to search for new rewards in our environment. In terms of your brain chemistry, right now as you read these words, you are under the influence of chemicals that are practically indistinguishable from drugs that could get you arrested. The difference is our brains are vastly better at regulating the release and re-uptake of endogenous drugs than of exogenous ones.

One of the ways that recreational drugs achieve their potency is by short-circuiting the brain’s normal maintenance work. No one overdoses on endorphins, but thousands die every year from heroin. Regular substance abuse can cause long-term neurological damage as brain scans of chronic speed or cocaine users have amply demonstrated. One study scanned dopamine receptors in the brains of alcoholics, overeaters, and cocaine addicts. In scans of healthy brains, the dopamine-rich areas showed up as two symmetrical bright red blotches, fading out to green at their peripheries. (Red signals the most active areas.) In the brains of alcoholics and overeaters, the red spots were fractional compared to those in the normal brain, meaning they stored a reduced dose of the brain’s natural supply of dopamine. In the brains of cocaine addicts, the red spots were nonexistent.

The dopamine damage indicted by long-term drug use is significant enough that it’s hard to argue against society trying to prevent people from abusing drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. By the way, another dopamine leaching culprit is lack of sleep.

Adrenaline: the fight, flight or freeze hormone is activated by the adrenal glands with a sudden surge of energy. Quaila, the brain’s interpretation of its internal state in relation to the external world is constantly adjusting adrenaline levels. Increased adrenaline can be detected by number of ways, one is that the hormone diverts blood form the extremities to the core. Body temperature drops at the hands and feet or sweating occurs. So when you hear a stress-inducing sentence, language centers and working memory decodes the meaning and puts it front and center in your consciousness. As the stress response is triggered, it releases either adrenaline (to recruit cortisol) or oxytocin.

As far as brain chemistry goes, these two strategies are available to cope with stress. You can load up on adrenaline for fight-or-flight, or you can cool down with oxytocin to “tend-and-befriend.” Usually a male will unconsciously opt for the aggressive strategy of adrenaline while women are more inclined towards oxytocin, but not always. These hormones are distinct and clearly two different kinds rides.

Oxytocin: Feelings of attachment are partially instigated by oxytocin, but it goes beyond that primary emotion. You can fight your way out of stress by destroying your enemy, or you can reduce it by reaching out. Actually, a lot of people say oxytocin is the cuddly hormone. Kind of, but oxytocin is much more evasive than that because it is not linked with emotion. Distinguished Psychologist, Shelly Talyor at UCLA says, “older women who perceive their husbands to be non-supportive have chronically higher levels of oxytocin. It may be that when social support needs are not met, oxytocin levels go up as a signal to seek out social contact. Once found, it resumes to normal levels. So, oxytocin may in fact not be the “feel good” hormone. It may be the “feel crummy” hormone that leads it to taking steps to feel better. Oxytocin triggers the drive for social attachment, it’s the opioids supplying the “warm and fuzzy” feeling that is experienced when we connect.

The activity in the prefrontal lobes consists mostly of neurons talking to each other in very small regions of the neocortex while the limbic system causes a cascade of events throughout the body. The release of these emotional responses to the environment or “external events” is often in the form of adrenaline leading to stress.

So why does free association usually gravitate toward emotionally negative thoughts? The answer is that memories experienced under the influence of strong emotions are more locked in a deep embrace with the limbic system. If you feel terror swell inside you or convulse with anger, the limbic system is involved. When such a thought is revisited over and over, you’re increasing the emotional weight of the memory. It might seem cathartic to analyze and relive highly charged events in all their emotional intensity, but because of the way the brain’s emotional and motor systems interact, reliving events only makes the negativity more powerful. With some traumatic events, you may be better off simply forgetting about it. But what about events that we can’t put out of our mind, either because they return compulsively or because our daily routines force us to confront them?

The way to progress is wire the brain so that recreating the event in your head no longer unleashes an emotional response.

The way out of a damaging association is to make a new one with less charge. In other words, when recreating the traumatic experience in a safe environment, it rewires the neural association in that moment. Reliving the traumatic event without something negative happening again (real or imagined) forges a new association in your head dampening the original emotional response. By reconsolidating the memory, we make a new memory in the process with new connections.  By doing this, you reduce the weight of that thought.

Neuro psychologist and author of the book, Buddha’s Brain, Dr. Rick Hanson, has some practical tips to defuse highly charged thoughts. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Activate a useful waking state and notice how you feel in the present moment. It may not be a perfect day, but basically you’re okay. Now sink into that feeling of being okay. Hanson says to “marinate” in it.
  2. The next step is to instal this feeling of being okay and intensify the state by staying with it and enjoying it. Do this several times a day for about 30 seconds.
  3. When a negative thought comes up, associate it with your feeling of being okay.
  4. The association helps the brain to learn how to take in the good and reduce the charge of negative associations.
  5. Create more episodes of useful growth (actively feeling alright) by strengthening more neural structures.

This formal contemplative practice of “activation and installation” should be practiced every day. You will feel better about yourself by creating a positive cycle of well-being. This is what Rick Hanson has coined, “hardwiring happiness.”

In one way or another all our experiences are chemically conditioned. The first step is learning to recognize the release of specific chemicals in the brain. Learning to identify your internal pharmacy should be a touchstone of the examined life. We feel serotonin’s rejection-sensitivity and social confidence, dopamine’s exploratory push for seeking pleasure and adrenalines’ sudden lift. There’s cortisol’s frayed edged, the endorphins’ of oceanic bliss and oxytocin’s drive to make emotional bonds. These are some of the humors of the modern world, the drugs your brain relies on to push you toward certain objectives and away from others. It entities us to understand the unique and predictable patterns of each chemical release.

If you know something about your mental medicine cabinet, you can account for biased judgement. Learning to recognize which chemical is front and center won’t make it go away, but you can identify patterns, and if your response seems inappropriate, you can consciously discount the drugs in your head.

So this is your brain in all its multiplicity. You are part reptile, part mammal, and part homo sapien. You are a twitchy amygdala, you are a dopamine fiend, you are under the spell of oxytocin. You are an unthinkably complex series of connections and links spun together by your genes and by life’s experiences. You are an intelligent free agent and a walking assembly of patterns and waves, clusters of neurons firing in and out of sync with one another.

All this beneath the surface of your awareness is a world reeling.  At any given time, your background mood and foreground emotions are a measure of the various chemicals swirling around in your head. To a certain extent, hormones do much of the talking and they are highly influential.

Understanding brain chemistry in context explains how it may effect our judgement and allows us to be a more discriminating user of the brain.


Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s Brain. Oakland: Raincoast Books.

Johnson, S. (2004). Mind Wide Open. New York: Scribner.

Klien, E. (2014). Meditation, Neuroscience, and Happiness. Podcast. Elephant Journal. Retrieved: 05/21/2014.

Maclean, P. (1990). The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions. New York: Springer.

Moss, M. (2013). Salt, Sugar, Fat. New York: Random House.

Pierce, J. (2009). Who Devised Triune Brain Theory?

Taylor, S. (2006). Tend and Befriend. Current Direction in Psychological Science. University of California. Vol.15 – n.4