Tag Archives: Dopamine

Vagus Nerve: High-Tone, Low-Tone Dorsal

Vagus Nerve: High-Tone, Low-Tone Dorsal

Vagus Nerve High-Tone Low-Tone dorsal

As I learn more about Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges, I am starting to understand why experts say that one must be in the Ventral Vagal state to really heal. Starting with an image from an article in Frontiers in Psychiatry written by Swiss researchers, I added information on high-tone and low-tone dorsal from Meditate Not Dissociate.

Adrenaline is like stepping on the accelerator; ventral vagal is the ideal coasting state — generating nice Alpha waves, relaxed, engaged, compassionate, fully-present-emotionally, “tend and befriend” or “feed and breed.” Low-tone vagal is described as a gentle brake on the nervous system, allowing a calming/relaxed and alert state, “rest and digest.” High-tone vagal is slamming on the brake and accelerator pedal at the same time. It LOOKS calm, but inside the systems are disintegrating. The graphic below describes three states, but there are really four.

three states of vagus behavior

Update August, 2021

As I continue to watch Stephen Porges videos and participate in Rick Hanson on-line meditation sessions, I have refined the graphic. This version clearly shows that the ventral vagus, which develops myelination through interaction with caregivers, stops at about the navel, while the unmyelinated vagus, fully-functional at birth, extends all they way through the intestines. I lined up the stomach with the direction the brain is facing on this version, and clarified that high-tone dorsal (stuck in the high-beta wavelength of fear) is like pulling on the hand-brake while still in gear.

The myelinated ventral vagus is a state of biological relaxation where one can play, including wrestling the way puppies do or touch football, and still feel safe and connected. It is the interoception of the cues of safety from the ventral vagus that allows play. Modulated voice, smiling face, welcoming vibe. The ability to sit still and listen to another.

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…

Attention > Dopamine > Detailed Memory

Attention > Dopamine > Detailed Memory

Joyfulness seems factory-installed in the young, but can slip away as people get older. Young people easily remember specific times they were happy, and can recall enthusiastic, unconditional love. As we get older, many of us start to ruminate broadly. “I never get a break,” for example. That over-general “tape loop” leads to feeling bad.

Detailed Memories of Happiness

Spanish researchers have reported that aging patients showed fewer symptoms of depression and hopelessness after they practiced techniques for retrieving detailed memories, according an a May 10, 2011 article in the NYTimes Science News. Teaching people to focus on moment-to-moment experiences and to accept their negative thoughts may make them more tolerant of negative memories. The Mindfulness Meditation technique he teaches short-circuits the over-generalization habit that people often develop as a way of dampening emotional effects, according to Dr. Hermans.

Over-generality creates a risk factor for PTSD. “Some people tend to ruminate at a very categorical, general level about how unsafe life is or how weak I am, or how guilty I am,” says Richard Bryant. “If I do that habitually, that sets me up for developing PTSD after a trauma.”

“If you’re unhappy and you want to be happy, it’s helpful to have memories that you can navigate to come up with specific solutions,” Dr. Williams said. “It’s like a safety net.”

The formation of detailed memories is impaired by screensucking according to Nicholas Carr in “The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains.” On page 193 he points out that the key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and forming connections between the requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory. This is why arousal is important. When you are afraid or very excited, the memory formation is sharper and more likely to become permanent.

The Web is a Technology of Forgetfuless

Because web browsing fills up short term working memory but does not leave time for deep memory formation, Carr says, “The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.”

Nobel prize winning biologist Dr. Eric Kandel says, “For a memory to persist, the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. this is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory.”

The influx of competing messages that we receive online overloads our working memory; making it much harder for us to concentrate on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks, to the plasticity of the brain, the more we train our brain to be distracted, the harder it becomes to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers. Our use of the web makes it harder to lock information into our biological memory, and we’re forced to rely more and more on the Internet. It makes us shallower thinkers.

Attentiveness Produces Dopamine

Leaning to think includes learning to exercise some control over how and what you think, over where we focus our attention. The establishment of attention lead the neurons of the cortex to send signals to neurons in the midbrain that produce the powerful neurotransmitter dopamine. The axons of these neurons reach all the way into the hippocampus, where the dopamine jumpstarts the consolidation of explicit memory.

You need dopamine to learn, and learning is pleasurable. Is this why dopamine sensitive people love new learning experiences? Attentiveness and the dopamine it produces help create specific memories that can be accessed with sufficient granularity to ward off depression.

We can choose where our attention goes and where our energy flows. We can practice mindfulness meditation and choose to remember pleasant experiences rather than ruminating on over-general fears.

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.

What Makes You Feel Nurtured?

What Makes You Feel Nurtured?

Karen Clark is a business dynamo who guides people to succeed in online businesses. She is also a wife, mother, motivational speaker and school volunteer. She does much more than this, with great enthusiasm and generosity. I have been impressed and grateful for the upbeat, helpful MeetUp meetings she sponsors for small business owners in her community.

One of the problems with high output is burnout. Motivated, energetic people have so much they want to do, and they know that ideas are easy, execution is hard. But it is all about execution. Trouble is, sometimes you execute yourself.

Karen recently asked her Facebook friends “What makes you feel nurtured?” Her friends posted lots of jokes along with useful answers like, “Fires. Rain. Reading for pleasure. Shopping really good music. Eating a little expensive fine food or wine. Travel. Baths with aroma therapy. I bet one of yours is walking.”

Fires and rain could be expanded to spending time in nature. Summer in California lends itself to walking along natural creeks and in county parks. But is this simply generating more things for the To Do List? What is the underlying question?

I, too, have been wrestling with this because I have spent the past seven years building my online business. It is a business school axiom that if you survive seven years, your business will be a success. I guess that means that, technically, I am over the hump and now it is time to throttle back, step back for a moment and take a deep breath.

I have been working so hard that my sense of humor has disappeared and my creativity needs refurbishing. What did I do? Travel to someplace that feeds my soul. What I really wanted was sunshine and warm ocean water, but I am too frugal to spend much so I snapped up a $149 flight to Ft. Lauderdale. Staying in the funky TropiRock where I have to ask at the front desk for shampoo (conditioner not available). I have to sign out a beach towel. This is economy!

Yet I sit on the beach at daybreak and wait for the sun to rise. Minor scratches from gardening in California are healing at twice the normal rate thanks to the sunshine and warm sea. Am I relaxing?

Well, the book I read during the first two days was “Drive,” a management book contending that what people really want is autonomy, mastery and purpose. Karen Clark has plenty of purpose. She has already created, made successful and sold a business. She is currently deeply involved with at least two businesses of her own. I can speak to her mastery of the technical side of what she does, her knowledge is impressive and she is a gifted teacher.

For me, the most valuable information in the book “Drive” was the experiment to see what it took to create symptoms of “generalized anxiety disorder” as defined by the DSM as three of the following symptoms.

  • Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance

Study participants were instructed to scrub their lives of noninstrumental activities. That is, small activities they undertook not out of obligation or to achieve a particular objective, but because they enjoyed them.

Researcher Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “After just two days of deprivation… the general deterioration in mood was so advanced that prolonging the experiment would have been inadvisable.”

That’s how I had eroded my creativity and energy — by disciplining myself to focus on productive work and to eliminate “noninstrumental activity.” I scrubbed the flow out of my life. And I became exhausted.

So this is the long answer to Karen’s short question. It is not specifically fires or rain or long walks. It is intentionally letting play into your life. Non-verbal play, best of all. Leverage that autonomy to choose play as a restorative. Nurture yourself with noninstrumental activity.

Like reading a fashion magazine, just for fun. No need to commit to a novel. Just break the focus, the intensity, for a few minutes to do something pleasurable. Rub your feet on that silly platform of spools that someone gave you. Accept the cat’s offer to play Mousie. Walk outside for a moment for no reason except that it is a beautiful day. Now that I’ve had a few days off, I see that nurturing myself does not have to be a big production. It is something that is created by a zillion small decisions.

Kinda like beauty or fitness or radiance. You actively choose to nurture yourself with beauty or stretching or music or dance. In the moment, and just for a minute or two. But enough to lift your heart and restore your spirit.