Our Brain is Our Clandestine Command Center

According to a recent NYTimes article, we are barely conscious of our most frequent brain activities, namely those that run our bodies. If our body begins to become dehydrated we feel thirsty and drink water. Our brain can instantly makes us feel quenched even though there hasn’t been enough time to replenish the blood stream. It anticipates the end result. (Hmm, unfortunately, we don’t feel full soon enough after beginning to eat.) A normal body requires water, salt, glucose, nutrients, sleep, movement, etc. The brain sees its job as anticipating your body’s need to replenish the required resources. This automatic management by our brains is scientifically known as allostasis.

Our Command Center Brain Controls Our Needs

The article likens this brain function to a personal financial advisor who manages your deposits and withdrawals. You can’t withdraw much energy if you haven’t made a sleep or nutrient deposit in days.

Most of this is not new, but most of us hold the view that our brain has this automatic side, which we don’t think about and a thinking side. However, the author of the article, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University professes that the brain is not for thinking and all brain activity is in service of maintaining the body.

I interpret her claim to mean that what we see as purely mental cannot be separated from allostasis. Deep breathing is physical, but It can act to calm us. More sleep can replenish emotional energy as well as physical. Presence on social media can deplete our social energy while not satisfying our need for human contact. Most people are experiencing weariness due to the Covid pandemic and the recent election, i.e. our brain is making withdrawals from our well-being, and we need to consider making deposits such as taking a nature walk, listening to music, watching light-hearted television, and in my case doing jig-saw and other puzzles proportional to the amount of time we worry about the 2020 world.  Hmm, am I withdrawing from my mental energy or adding to it when I use my brain on puzzles? Not sure.

Another hmm. The brain may spend more energy on our bodily functions, but thinking is indeed one of its functions. We may not be able to live without the brain making sure our bodies stay shipshape, but we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t think. How would we make scientific discoveries without the brain, for example? Perhaps the author meant thoughts related to feeling rather than analyzing, deducing, researching, and understanding..

Gut Feeling, a Scientific Reality?

 

Vagus Nerve System

After disheartening weeks of climate chaos I sought news to  combat depression. I found it in an unusual source: our guts. Gut bacteria and human health is a relatively new area of research. it began with incurable GI problems being treated by implanting fecal material from healthy folks  Then studies began to look at the role our bacteria played in other diseases. Brain Maker, by Dr. Perlmutter, catalogs problems of a number of people who received heavy doses of antibacterial medicine as youth. They later developed a variety of diseases, but rapidly improved with introduction of probiotics. Yogurt aficionados proclaimed “We told you so.” I’ve fallen in love with Kombucha, good for gut beasties and tastes like ginger beer with a bite.

Science is now looking at the connection with mental health. Anecdotal evidence supports the value of probiotics for depressed persons.

From Psychology Today: “There is growing evidence that the trillions of microbes inhabiting our gastrointestinal tracts (commonly referred to as microbiome or gut microbiota) play a mysterious yet significant role in many aspects of our mental health—ranging from psychological resilience to neuropsychiatric disorders.”

OK, Eloise, if none of this is  truly new, get to the point. Let’s suppose our microbes battle depression. . How do those little guys down there message our minds up here? What’s new to my understanding is the microbiome-gut-brain axis, a bidirectional feedback loop facilitated in part by the vagus nerve. This longest nerve in our body is like Hwy 66 with exit and entrance ramps being the nerve fibers which carry messages up and down. I still wonder how those little guys down there create messages or prod the gut to do so.

In a previous blog, Buzz Your Pain Away I wrote about zapping with electricity to control pain. Continuing with the super highway analogy, medical science long knew that pain impulses jump on entrance ramps to alert our brains  to get our hands off the hot stove, but more recently they discovered  the brain sends electrical anti-inflammatory signals out exit ramps to pain sites. Ambulances? As a result, medical science is engaged in research  on Implanting devices to generate such signals via a zap of electricity. .

We are genuinely wired, but I refuse to view myself as a robot.

 

  1. Psychiatry and Psychotherapy departments at the University of Regensburg in Germany

Psychology Today Article