Tag Archives: amygdala

The Female Brain

The Female Brain

The Female Brain“If you only read one book about the brain this year, make it this one,” said Dr. Martin Rossman in his UCTV lecture on YouTube titled How Your Brain Can Turn Anxiety into Calmness. The lecture is so fascinating I have watched it several times — I find his rabbinical speaking style to be soothing and the science to be amazing. He says, “If we can teach the blind to see, we can teach the anxious to relax.” He recommended this book so strongly because, “it saved my marriage.” This from an M.D.!

Louanne Brizedine’s book is written in a very accessible style, even though she is an M.D. trained at Yale and on staff at UCSF. She starts with how, even before babies are born, testosterone kills off half the neurons that manage with emotional communication in the brain of the male fetus. Testosterone kills a huge percentage again at puberty (which is why teen boys don’t talk about feelings) and again later in life. She explains that we all have androgens, which she doesn’t like to call “male hormones” because, well, we all have them. They generate sex and aggression and diminish in both genders with age.

“Her book travels through the human lifespan describing predictable hormone changes and how they affect the brain and behavior. Perimenopause and menopause are explained in detail and strategies for coping are useful. I especially liked Dr. Brizendine’s riff on how society will change when we use this new knowledge.

Women are living in the midst of a revolution in consciousness about women’s biological reality that will transform human society…. The scientific facts behind how the female brain functions, perceives reality, responds to emotions, reads emotions in others, and nurtures and cares for others are women’s reality. Their needs for functioning at their full potential and using the innate talents of the female brain are becoming clear scientifically. Women have a biological imperative for insisting that a new social contract take them and their needs into account. Our future, and our children’s future, depends on it.”

Dr. Brizendine descries in detail how oxytocin drives our “tend and mend” behavior and when it subsides in menopause, it can free us to creative pursuits beyond the boundaries of our own families.

“If you decide to take hormone therapy, keep your blood pressure low, don’t smoke, get at least sixty minutes per week of increased-pulse cardio-vascular exercise, keep your cholesterol low, eat as many vegetables as you can, take vitamins, decrease your stress, and increase your social support.
“The hypothalamus controls our appetite. …they found that changes in a woman’s diet and physical activity, both of which may have to do with changes in her hypothalamus at menopause, are the cause of weight gain.”

Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain

Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain

Author Elaine Fox tells us that Optimism is more than feeling good’ it’s about being engaged with a meaningful life,developing resilience, and feeling in control. Optimistic realists, she says, don’t believe that good things will come if they simply thing happy thoughts. Instead, they believe at a very deep level that they have some control over their destinies.

Often, the control is imaginary, and mildly depressed people have a more accurate understanding that the control is an illusion. But optimistic people seem to attract good luck and good fortune. Is optimism hard-wired or can we create a healthy brain?

“Look on the bright side. I always do,” says Magic Johnson. This is a powerful technique for brain health. Research shows that people who “flourish” experience about 3 good feelings for every bad one. If you want your marriage to be happy, crank it up to 5 good feelings for every negative one.

Other techniques are mindfulness meditation, especially Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. This balances and calms the brain. The Buddhist practice labeling our feelings and treating them as nothing more objects of attention can encourage a sense of detachment.

When there is more activity on the right side of the brain (right-sided asymmetry) there is more of an experienced of stress and fearfulness which produces more cortisol. More activity in the left half of the brain, relative to the right, is related to a tendency to approach good things, while more relative activity in the right half is associated with avoidance of bad things. Brain scans of withdrawn or depressed people typically show higher activity on the right side side. This presents a challenge for left-handed people because the right side of the brain is dominant.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts, is described in Wikipedia as:

… having a variety of very powerful benefits including an increase in the body’s immune system’s ability to ward off disease, a shift from the right prefrontal cortex (associated with anxiety, depression, and aversion) to the left prefrontal cortex (associated with happiness, flow, and enjoyment). Other benefits include a reduction in stress hormones such as cortisol, and an improvement in one’s overall happiness and well-being in life.

Author Elaine Fox also explains the physiology of people who maintain their composure in the face of stress. They have more and better connections between the prefrontal cortex which moderates and tamps down a jangling amygdala which enables them to have a “very long fuse.” They are slow to anger and they calm down quickly after they are upset. They also tend to have a wider circle of friends, enjoy higher status and earn more money.

In contrast, people with an overactive amygdala and limited connections to the more thoughtful prefrontal cortex behave more like Donald Duck. They appear over-reactive and coworkers and others tend to avoid them or “walk on eggshells” around them. They have fewer friends and earn less.

Overall, the book was optimistic that people can choose to think good thoughts and shift their outlook to a positive one in which they feel they have control over their lives and the outcomes of their actions. Recommended

Compass of Pleasure

Compass of Pleasure

The jaunty subtitle is: How our brains make fatty foods, orgasm, exercise, generosity, vodka, learning and gambling feel so good. I skipped the gambling chapter in this library book, and many of the other chapters looked brand new but the pages on orgasm were well-worn, with the corners dog-eared and worn off. Hmmm.

This book was more technical than I expected, and less focused. I was hoping for some transcendent prediction or behavior guideline but got nothing more than an imagined “baseball cap of happiness” by the last chapter. Humph. Many science fiction books predict far more pleasurable brain stimulation practices in the future.

Nevertheless, his excruciatingly detailed explanation of some research I had seen summarized elsewhere helped me to understand why a blunted dopamine pleasure circuit might drive compensatory overeating. This lends credence to Michael Pollan’s assertion that “the banquet is in the first bite.”

David Linden does an excellent job of explaining how addiction works. The ancient Greeks were right: Moderation in All Things. Binging on something (chocolate, alcohol, sex) turns “liking” into “wanting,” then “craving.” He describes how it lights up the brains of humans, monkeys and rats. Binging on substances (including food) or activities (sex, gambling) changes the brain by downregulating the dopamine receptors. Too much happy-juice burns out a few of the circuits.

But wait! There’s more. If addiction is defined as craving and you get it by binging, is that the same as “physical dependence?” Nope. You can crave booze without actually having the DTs.

Physical dependence is created with a zillion small hits, like nicotine and caffeine. When you are physically dependent, withdrawal can lead to depression, lethargy, irritability and the inability to derive pleasure from other activities. No wonder people tend to substitute a new addiction (like daily running) for an old one (like daily drinking).

He is crystal clear about the importance of genetics in being addiction prone and he describes the different kinds of inheritable dopamine systems. Here’s a quote:

One tantalizing observation concerns the gene for the D2 subtype of dopamine receptor, a crucial component of the pleasure circuit. A particular form of this gene, called the A1 variant, results in reduced expression of D2 dopamine receptors within the nucleus accumbens and the dorsal striatum. Carriers of the A1 variant are, as a result, significantly more likely to become addicted to alcohol, cocaine, or nicotine. Furthermore, among alcoholics, those with the A1 variant tend to be more severely affected, with earlier age of drinking onset, more severe episodes of intoxication, and more unsuccessful attempts to quit. In families with a strong history of alcoholism, brain scanning has revealed that those family members who were not alcoholics had more D2 receptors in the nucleus accumbens and the dorsal striatum than those who were. Taken together, these studies suggest that elevated levels of D2 receptor may be protective against certain forms of drug addiction.

So, if you get more pleasure out of it, you consume less? Maybe it is time to more fully appreciate that the banquet is in the first bite…

Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, Ph.D.

Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, Ph.D.

There is an interesting and welcome change in self-help and brain biology books these days. “The Social Animal” by David Brooks strings recent scientific discoveries about social behavior on a framework of storyline about several intersecting fictional lives. Kristin Neff interleaves her academic study of self-forgiveness and self-compassion with stories from her own life. The books intersect on the brain studies of Buddhist monks during meditation, but her stories are non-fiction and much more compelling.

Reading examples of how self-compassion works in her life brings it into sharp focus, especially the stories about her autistic son. The best is at the end of the book… a compelling story of the journey to Mongolia with her husband, son, and a film crew to have the revered shaman, reached by horseback in the high steppes, cast out the spirits that were causing the son’s autism. What happened next is amazing and worth the read.


This posting on Facebook exemplifies Dr. Neff’s message of accepting one’s mistakes as part of being human, and of calling up the memory of a loving caregiver who could be counted on to soothe the emotional pain. All the more interesting because the Mom and Dad that she misses are both dead. The mother, of a drug overdose and the father (my first cousin) of chronic alcohol abuse. Yet they continue to be a source of comfort to their young adult daughter.

Dr. Neff’s mantra to remind herself to practice compassion is:

May I be safe
May I be peaceful
May I be kind to myself
May I accept myself as I am
May I accept my life as it is

She recommends distracting oneself from dwelling on the bad feelings by taking a walk or plunging into a physical chore like cleaning or gardening while practicing the mantra and self-compassion. She points out that “Forgiveness does not mean condoning bad behavior or that we need to interact with people who have hurt us.” Other notes:

P. 156. People who invest their self worth in feeling superior and infallible tent to get angry and defensive when their status is threatened. People who compassionately accept their imperfections however, no longer need to engage in such unhealthy behavior to protect their egos.

Not only is High self-esteem is linked to narcissism but, in contrast, high self-compassion is not linked to narcissism.

Love allows us to feel confident and secure (oxytocin) while fear sends our amygdala into overdrive and floods our systems with cortisol.

p. 170 Failure is less likely to damage the self-efficacy beliefs of self-compassionate people.

P. 45 John Bowlby argues that early attachment with parents created the “internal working model” of self in relation to others. Betrayed and abused children become insecurely attaches, tend to feel unworthy and unlovable and that other people cannot be trusted. This creates pervasive feelings of insecurity, long-terms emotional distress and impairs the formation of close, stable relationships. Not surprisingly, they turn out to have low self-compassion. These internal working models can be changed through healthy romantic partnerships and skilled therapy. (also compassion meditation) and consistently giving ourselves nurturance and understanding we come to feel worthy of care and acceptance.

Self-criticism is associated with activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate (error processing and problem solving) Kindness and self-reassurance is associated with the left temporal pole (left pre-frontal cortex) and insula activation.

Physical touch releases oxytocin, provides a sense of security and soothes cardiovascular stress. Hug yourself.

p. 119 There are four elements to self-compassion mindfulness.
This is a moment of suffering (mindfulness of emotions)
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment (be in the present)
May I give myself the compassion I need. (set the intention to be self-compassionate)

Christopher Germer (The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion) observes that his client typically go through several distinct stages during therapy. People who feel worthless can experience a backdraft, like when a door is opened on a fire and the rush of fresh air suddenly fuels an oxygen-starved fire causing flames to blast through the newly open door. Through mindfulness, the backdraft may be experienced with compassion. Then, sometimes, infatuation follows and the self-critical person is suddenly tender towards oneself.

p. 225 Rather than relying on your partner to give you exactly what you need, try meeting your own needs first. Identify what you’re craving (validation, care, support, etc.) and see if self-compassion can help give it to you. This will help take the pressure off your partner. As you learn to rely more on self-healing, your would, given the care and attention they need, can heal.

Dr. Neff also refers to John Gottman, famous for identifying the four horseman of divorce: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Her insights into her own failed first marriage in light of her father’s abandonment of her family, and her stresses with her second husband illuminate the academic information. A useful and readable book. I recommend it.