Tag Archives: Dopamine

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.”

What I Learned in Oakmont

What I Learned in Oakmont

OakmontRoom613The venerable, 85 year old Senior Peer Counselor put it best, “These people are a gift.” I learned so much from the unmarried couple in their 70’s with whom I stayed in Oakmont for the past eight months.

  • I enjoyed being surrounded by beautiful objects and expensive books that I did not have to dust.
  • I learned what it felt like to be on the receiving end of verbal abuse.
  • I saw what “scab-picking” was.
  • In dismay, I watched the man flee into a financial fantasy to shield himself, emotionally, from the verbal abuse. For 10 years he had been sending money to a Nigerian “lawyer” in the hope of getting a bank in Abu Dhabi to lend him a million dollars to invest in real estate. Just before I left today, he told me the Nigerian lawyer had been jailed, which froze the man’s assets in Nigeria during November and December, and that he had fired the Nigerian. He continues to believe that his loan will fund “next week.”
  • I watched the hostess punish me by keeping the TV tuned to Fox News.
  • I learned that isolation is the enemy of mental health.
  • I saw that Learned Helplessness keeps people trapped in ruts of thin emotional survivorship. They mistake this for courage.
  • What takes real courage is climbing out of the helplessness that was learned when one was vulnerable, sharpening the tools that have been gained over the years, learning to trust yourself again, and doing what it takes to get out of the rut.
  • I learned why the work we do as Senior Peer Counselors is so important.
  • I learned that love is simultaneously fragile and indestructible.
  • I learned that a dog is a fountain of joy and unconditional love. I won’t be paraphrasing D.C Fontana anymore about “enslaving animals for the emotional gratification of humans.”

Their beautiful Golden Retriever suddenly became lame before Thanksgiving and had to be euthanized before Christmas. The house was not the same without her. The Feeling of Healing was gone. A grayness descended.

I left.

Happiness is a Skill and Can Be Learned

Happiness is a Skill and Can Be Learned

WeilMDOne of the Senior Peer Counselors recommended Spontaneous Happiness byAndrew Weil, M.D. because “neuroscientists have demonstrated that helping others activates the same centers i the brain involved in dopamine-mediated pleasure responses to food and sex. One study of more than 3,000 volunteers concluded that regular helpers are ten times more likely to be in good health than people who don’t volunteer.

Much of the book covered things I already knew: eat real food, mostly plants, not too much. Make sure you get plenty of Vitamin D, especially by having fun in the sunshine. Take fish oil, and go fishing. Play with your “animal companions” and spend time in nature. Meditate, don’t medicate (if possible).

Even though I took an 8 week course in Mindfulness Meditation and have listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn tapes till they were bald, I still struggled with what I was supposed to actually DO during meditation. Dr. Weil explained Mindfulness as “self regulation of attention.” Ah! Where your attention goes, your energy flows. I know that one.

He explained meditation as the “ability to maintain one’s experience in the present moment.” Oh, so Blank Mind isn’t the objective, just Beginner’s Mind. I know that one, too!

What was especially fascinating was how he used this to explain addiction. On page 140 he notes that early in his professional career, he studied drugs and addiction and became known as an expert in addiction medicine. He learned that options for the treatment of addiction are few.

Solving addiction at its root is hard because it demands restructuring the mind at its core, where we experience the distinction between conscious awareness and the objects of awareness, between the perceiving self and what is perceived.

This sounds a lot like “addiction is a spiritual disease.” But wait, there’s more. He continues

When people cannot stop reaching for the next snack chip or the next cigarette, it is as if the chips and cigarettes control attention and behavior. in reality, the mind gives its power and control to the objects of addictive behavior. Freedom from addiction comes with awareness of that process and the ability to experience the object as object, without projecting onto it any undue significance. This is the essence of the buddhist teaching that suffering comes from attachment, and to reduce our suffering, we must work to reduce attachment. Furthermore, Eastern psychology insists that thoughts are best experienced as objects of awareness, just like trees or birds in the world around us. We suffer emotional pain because we cannot stop attending to our thoughts, cannot stop seeing them as part of us and habitually giving them great significance. Yoga masters and buddhist teachers recommend a variety of methods to break our attachment to thoughts. Some are practices intended to shift the focus of attention to something else — to the breath, for example, or to images in the mind’s eye, or to sounds. Others aim to develop the power of attention and increase voluntary control of it or to promote awareness of the distinction between the self and thoughts.

He ways that meditation is a long-term solution to the core problel of confusing awareness wit the objects of awareness (including thoughts) and suffering as a result of attachment.

I have read several of Dr. Weil’s books and articles and watched him on TV. What I liked best about this book is when he talked about the dysthymia he suffered for many years, and role of rumination and isolation in the lives of writers. He talked about how he lived far out in the country, down rough roads that made it difficult to visit him, even with an invitation. He thought that keeping others far away protected them from his downcast moods.

In this book he reveals that in his late 60’s, he realized that the social isolation was not separate from his dysthymia and he “uprooted” himself from his long time home, sold his rural property and moved into Tucson. He went out to dinner much more often and invited others over frequently. His mood improved considerably. He noticed that the most searched term on his website was “depression” and resolved to write a book about it — or rather, about its opposite, Happiness.

Happiness is a Skill

He says that happiness is a skill and on page 66 he quotes Matthiew Ricard, a French Ph.D. in molecular genetics turned Buddhist monk

The mind is malleable. Our lives can be greatly transformed by even a minimal change in how we manage our thoughts and how we perceive and interpret the world. Happiness is a skill. It takes effort and time.

He summarized mind-oriented approaches to emotional well-being. Some key points and comments from me:

  • Understand that depressive rumination is a hallmark of depression and that thoughts are the major source of sadness, anxiety, and other negative emotions. Learn to “curate” your thoughts, as if one’s mind is a museum where we look at the same images over and over.)


  • CBT is the most time- and cost-effective form of psychotherapy for depression and anxiety.


  • Learn how to use mantras, chanting, mental imagery, and conscious breathing to break the grip of sadness, anxiety, stress or negative thinking.


  • Curate the sounds in your head with silence or music that makes you feel good, or the sounds of nature. Curate what you see. Limit TV and the Internet. Avoid needlessly distressing images like Fox News.


  • Make social interaction a priority. It is a powerful safeguard of emotional well-being. As prison wardens know, isolation is death.

I recommend this book.

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…

Where the Dopamine Flows Your Energy Goes

Where the Dopamine Flows Your Energy Goes
Where the Dopamine Flows Your Energy Goes

Today’s NYTimes asks, “Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?” Only 2.4% of Americans over age 60 move around for at least 30 minutes per day.  Our bodies are designed to be farmers, or hunter-gatherers, not desk-bound knowledge workers. In a study of people who were forced to overeat and prevented from exercising, some gained weight and some didn’t. Why?

“The people who didn’t gain weight were unconsciously moving around more,” Dr. Jensen says. They hadn’t started exercising more — that was prohibited by the study. Their bodies simply responded naturally by making more little movements than they had before the overfeeding began, like taking the stairs, trotting down the hall to the office water cooler, bustling about with chores at home or simply fidgeting. On average, the subjects who gained weight sat two hours more per day than those who hadn’t.

We know that dopamine controls movement and mood. People often eat to feel better. Sometimes they go for a walk/jog/run to feel better. Dance or make love or other pleasurable vigorous activity. We know that exercise elevates mode.

Did you know that obese people have lethargic dopamine receptors? The top left image shows the brain scan of a normal person eating. Next to it is the cooler, bluer scan of the obese person eating. Not as much excitement. See article.

The two hot images below them show that, overall, normal weight and obese people have similar brain metabolic activity. The big difference is whether eating lights up their pleasure center (dopamine receptors).

The bottom chart shows Body Mass Index (BMI) from low (skinny) on the left to high (fat) on the right. The number of dopamine receptors that are lit up by food PLUNGES the fatter you get. In terms of getting a dopamine boost, the more you eat, the less you get. Does fat lower dopamine receptors or the other way around? Could this be nature’s way of taking the fun out of eating? See this article from about a year ago.

The results support the notion that type 2 dopamine receptors (D2DR) — brain receptors that have been shown to play a key role in addiction — also play a key role in the rats’ heightened response to food. In fact, as the rats became obese, the levels of D2DR in the brain’s reward circuit decreased. This drop in D2DR is similar to that previously seen in humans addicted to drugs like cocaine or heroin.

We know that movement and non-verbal play lifts mood (increases dopamine). Isn’t it interesting to learn that using food to lift mood becomes a dull weapon the more we use it? This is the paradox that to get more energy, you need to spend more energy.
Nature can be harsh.