Musings on the Brain: Understanding Behaviors

Introduction: Life with a Brain

I write an ode to the brain in this article.

We live in a world where constant forces require that we must counteract or succumb. We stand against the force of gravity taking us down. We seek shelter from the wind and rain that impose their control over our movement and plans. We resist the pull of things that we ascertain have little more than superficial rescue from the challenges we face, be it alcohol, drugs, or other quick pleasures or distractions.

We learn the dance of interaction with others, sometimes leading, sometimes following, and sometimes flowing in unison.

We seek to change the environment the way our minds would have it, harnessing the potential energy of our imagination and manifesting a vision with our hands as tools. We seek to radiate our light on others or eclipse theirs, whether accidentally or deliberately. Humans are capable of enduring even the most significant degree of pain, suffering, and tragedy. We owe this ability to adapt and persevere to our brains.

person rock climbing
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Have You Ever Thought What a Marvelous Structure the Brain is?

One wouldn’t realize that an organ weighing an average of 3 pounds, making up about 2% of one’s total body weight, holds such a miracle. Ten billion nerve cells make up the brain. It functions to preserve and protect while maintaining a direct and indirect link to every body cell. After all, the body moves toward the things that satisfy it because of the brain.

The brain coordinates the programs and behaviors needed for survival. Nevertheless, it requires the environment to trigger its growth and provide it experiences to fine-tune its responses. And, if harnessed, the brain can allow an individual and society to flourish. Creative outputs come from dancers, artists, musicians, and writers, as much as engineers, scientists, and lawyers- movement, paintings, works, manuscripts, blueprints, and theses. The brain knows only the limits that it places on itself. I wonder what the possibilities would be if the brain knew no limits.

The brain represents the most realistic virtual reality experience in our visions, dreams, and thought streams. If I asked you to visualize your favorite food, you could pull it up from your repertoire of memories, imagine its scent, and just about taste it. The brain triggers neurotransmitters to release the memory into conscious thought and readies neurotransmitters and hormones for eating your favorite meal. Did you get a craving?

the brain can imagine the flavor of these macaroons
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Why does someone do something that causes harm and avoid something that would provide benefit? How does the Brain Decide?

The central nervous system is the security force and executor of our will. One paradox is the issue of momentary pleasure for later harm or delayed pleasure for a path out of the comfort zone.

We’ll answer the first one: Why would the brain choose behavior that ultimately causes it harm and avoid another that would be helpful?

Occasionally the brain and the mind can be in opposition with each other.

The core of the answer is that behaviors are adaptations to prior experience, whether they are foods, drinks, substances, vocalizations, or actions. The brain focuses on providing sustenance to reduce stress and inflammation. It is an adapter, a sensor, and an activator, and the senses are primed from experience. As it navigates past immediate stress, the brain activates the most substantial, connected pathway.

Take, for instance, sugary diets. Studies have shown that the reward of comfort foods on the system immediately results in decreasing stress. They are often foods of higher fat and sugar content. Similar results occur in sexual activity.

Dopamine and norepinephrine drive these pathways; they are neurotransmitters active in fight and flight and pleasure. These pathways merge in the amygdala, the center of adaptation to stressors, the rewards pathways, and emotional regulation. In the setting of chronic stress, the amygdala increases in volume and bolsters its tracks to the hypothalamus, the hub of the stress response (Zhang, 2018).

Another way to look at it is that chronic stress leads to increased stress sensitivity and response. Meanwhile, the activity of the molecule gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which slows down the stress response, becomes blunted during trauma and chronic stress because of a reduction in GABA receptors.

The more we face stress, the more we become prepared for it. With more significant dysfunction, we even create stress on the outside of us while attempting to regulate and stabilize the environment within. At some point, we almost get to conclude that we face constant pressure in the environment.

Imagine someone with post-traumatic stress disorder or agoraphobia who avoids any interaction or leaving home because of the palpable threat of harm. Another example would be that of someone who has compulsive hoarding. Frequently, trauma precedes this behavior; researchers posit that hoarding may prevent PTSD manifestations (Mills, 2013). Likely, the same thing occurs in self-harm behaviors such as cutting, burns, and pulling out hair.

I recently met someone in my prison work who stated that she was glad to be back. Several months ago, she was released for the fourth time to create some semblance of freedom. A few months later, after committing an assault, she was back “home.” She told me growing up she faced numerous traumas, listing out the types – almost matter-of-factly. During her stays, she didn’t have any problems with her behavior, she informed.

Why would a prison be a safe place? How could a life of confinement be a relief from the outside freedom of choice? We didn’t get to talking about her environment “on the outs” but I thought about how a prison could be a welcoming home for someone. There are prepared meals, health care, a predictable schedule, work duties, a warm bed, and clean environment. The routine of prison life can keep the brain at ease for some, especially if the prior experiences were unpredictable, chaotic, and harmful.

The brain strives to regulate the stress state, which can often escalate to the point that it perturbs the entire system. Before this occurs, an impulse signal is sent to control and nullify the stress. These impulses can fuel some of our behaviors and may be why they are so hard to change.

The brain and body are not always harmonious. Occasionally, the brain picks a shortcut to relieve stress while it becomes tethered to behaviors that cause delayed harm. We sometimes find ourselves in a situation where we decide that we need to change and avoid living a life imprisoned by our behaviors.

Behavior change is possible

The crux to changing and adapting is understanding that the brain is only doing what it can. We can learn past these cycles, some of which are rooted in infancy. Interestingly, learning expands the brain and physically changes it. When we understand where these signals originate, i.e., many of them are adaptations to stress and trauma, we can begin to see the forest for the trees. No longer do we need to be governed by our quick judgements and emotional outbursts. We do not need to let harmful words others say affect us; no longer do we need to react. The past traumas do not need to define us, making us its victim.

I realize that this is a long journey, sometimes accompanied by relapses. However, we can learn to cultivate our resources to generate, develop, and create. We can forge a path that takes us to a healthy environment and support system. We can communicate to others our thoughts and receive others’ responses without fear; we can build a bridge of collaboration.

It is all because of our glorious brains! We are such resilient creatures and we owe it all to our brains.

we can overcome the behaviors with by harnessing the brain
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Mills H. The role of trauma in hoarding: a project investigating the role of trauma in the expression of hoarding disease as well as features associated with hoarding. Thesis. Smith College. Link

Zhang X, et al. Stress-Induced Functional Alterations in Amygdala: Implications for Neuropsychiatric Diseases. Front Neurosci. 2018; 12: 367. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00367.

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