We have two heads

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia () - March 29, 2012 - 12:00am

You have two heads, i.e., two “masters” in your brain. One that looms over your actions when you are under stress and one that keeps you cool. If they were dressed, one master would be in fatigue pants (stressed) and the other one in denims (cool). They are always present in your brain but depending on the circumstances, one can subdue the other. How you respond to circumstances is the result of the constant duel between these two masters. 

Three scientists revealed these “masters” for us in an article entitled “This is your brain on meltdown” in the April 2012 issue of the Scientific American. These were Amy Arnsten, neurobiology professor at the Yale School of Medicine, Carolyn M. Mazure, a professor of psychiatry and psychology and associate dean for faculty affairs at the Yale School of Medicine, and Rajita Sinha, psychiatry professor at the Yale School of Medicine and the director of the Yale Stress Center. They wanted to understand what happens to the brain when we “lose it” in times when we are under significant stress which could be exams, a performance, episodes of illness, our own or of someone dear to us, or perhaps even financial. In fact, it could be anything depending on what you are sensitive to. 

According to their piece, with a cool master in the form of the prefrontal cortex, things are kept in check. The prefrontal cortex is that part of the brain that is highly developed in humans. Located behind your forehead, it is responsible for planning, decision-making and insight. With the cool master in control, “things” are kept balanced. By “things,” it means the brain parts that are responsible for the cementing of habit (striatum), the more primitive brain part (hypothalamus) that we have in common with other animals responsible for instincts such as aggression, hunger and sex and the part for emotions like fear or anger (amygdala). The cool master spreads brain chemicals called “neurotransmitters” like dopamine and norepinephrine over these brain parts and strengthens their connections with the prefrontal cortex. This means that you are able to make sense of what you detect in your environment. You are able to figure it out more and not overwhelmed by your emotional response to the situation. When this is the case, you are really thinking and not merely automatically reacting to the environment.

When you are under stress, it is the fatigue pants master led by the amygdala which flood the brain with those same brain chemicals which results in the shutting down of connections with the “denim” master. We literally lose it when we get stressed. Without connections to the thinking part of our brains, impulse and emotions rule unchecked. As a result, we panic or are mentally paralyzed to move on. 

What really alarmed me was their finding that constant exposure to stress strengthens the emotional master while weakening the reign of reason in our heads. That is worrying considering that we need to throw the rope of “reason” when we are engulfed by the emotional concentric Hula Hoops circling us.    

The scientists said that the turnout of the constant duel of these two masters in our head is also dependent on our genes. Some people are just born able to ride out stress better than others. But our lives are not authored by genes alone. The whole point of science is to find ways of helping ourselves once we understand how we keep or lose our cool. And this study is telling us that it might just help if we allow the denim master to assert its reign on the situation by thinking about what is happening and not just be carried away by the flood of emotions. It would seem that we have to learn the habit of thinking as opposed to the habit of reacting by feeling.

Each one of us has two heads engaged in constant fire. I guess, as the old saying goes, the one who wins is the one you feed, whether by your genes or by your will.

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