Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Man With Two Brains

A man with two brains? Only in the movies, right? No.

Each and every one of us has a second brain. It is called the enteric nervous system and is a network of neurons lining our gut. This “second brain” is not involved in any cognitive thought or decision making, but contains more than 100 million neurons (more than in the peripheral nervous system) that do more than just handle digestion. Those neurons can affect our mental state and influence certain diseases.

This system is far too complex to only move things through your colon. In fact, research shows that a “one-way street” runs from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve. According to Emeran Mayer, professor of physiology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA , “A big part of our emotions are probably influenced by the nerves in our gut”. In fact, 95 percent of our serotonin is found in the bowels (low serotonin levels affects depression). What this means is that our emotional state partially relies on information carried from the brain in our gut to the brain in our head.

In addition, 70 percent of our immune system relies on the gut to kill and eliminate foreign invaders. Current research is focusing on specifics of how the immune system and gut work together.

How does this affect resilience?

  • We are what we eat. We want our gut to be healthy, happy and working properly. If our digestive system is in distress, we now know that our emotional state can be affected.
  • Our digestion is influenced by our stress response. When we go into the fight/flight state, digestion is halted so we can run or fight for our lives. Therefore we do not properly digest our food.
  • If 70 percent of our immune system relies on our gut, we had better make sure our gut is in top shape so the immune system can work efficiently.

    Source: “Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being. February 12, 2010. Scientific American.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How Stress Can Affect Our Memory

Have you ever been at a party or social/work related event and forgotten the name of someone whom you know that you know? Have you ever walked into a room to get something and forgotten why you are there? Have you ever started to ask someone to pass you something only to forget what it is called? “Could you please pass me that……you know, thing over there, I can’t think of the name”.

You could be suffering from “neurotic stupidity”. Yes, there is a name for it, and it has its roots in cognitive psychology.

  • Neurotic stupidity is a failure to use the real capacity of our brain due to its being overloaded by information.
  • Neurotic stupidity manifests as a failure to process information needed to function well.
  • Symptoms of neurotic stupidity include missing important details, having needed information readily drop out of memory, failing to pick up on important social cues, and loss of creative problem solving skills.
  • Multitasking and muscular tension are major sources of neurotic stupidity.

Cognitive psychologists say we have a 2.5 bit channel capacity. Our brains can process 2.5 bits of information at a rate of 18 times per second. To get a sense of how limited this is, the average home computer can process 32 bits of information at a rate of 2-3 billion times per second. What this means is that the brain is easily overloaded, and when it overloads we drop information from our memory and miss important information necessary for problem solving and navigating though our world.

The good news is that we have an amazing ability to store information and to take information in. When our brains are allowed to operate at their best, they have remarkable capabilities. We know from years of research that memory has been shown to be almost limitless. But because of our limited channel capacity, the brain can only process small amounts of information per unit of time.

Most people would think that things we see and hear are the greatest sources of information coming into the brain. While it’s true that information from hearing and seeing can overload the brain, the largest source of information processed by the brain comes from our muscles. Muscular tension is the major source of information flow into the brain, and tension goes hand in hand with stress. It is stress and tension that clog our channel capacity, therefore, learning to relax allows us to think more clearly and concentrate more easily.

The cure for neurotic stupidity? Relaxation and self-quieting exercises.