Most people know by now that the human brain developed in three stages. The first to come along was the stem brain which we inherited from dinosaurs, next came the limbic followed by the prefrontal cortex, which – for better or worse – sets us apart from other animals. This post will focus on the middle child of the triune brain family, the “feeling” brain.
While there are many important elements involved in the limbic system, for the sake of simplicity, we’re going to focus on four key players: the hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus and the cingulated cortex.
The hypothalamus is like a military base waiting to deploy troops. When depressed or stressed, it’s on high alert with a hair-trigger response. As you can imagine, this makes it challenging to relax or be happy.
The amygdala sits on top of the hypothalamus. Its primary job is to regulate anxiety. Due to their proximity, these two form something akin to a dynamic duo in the emotional system.
Adjacent to the amygdala is the hippocampus. This one is all about memory and is closely related to the hypothalamus. Its primary role is to put short-term memories into long-term storage. It’s particularly fond of emotional memories, which is great if you have a surplus of good ones. It’s not so good when the brain starts hording bad ones, as it does when depressed.
But what makes the hippocampus a linchpin for depression is that it context-dependent and when the “context” is depression, all of life’s tragedies are all too easy to remember.
Finally, we come to the cingulated cortex which rests against the prefrontal cortex. The interesting thing about the cingulated cortex is its back end. No, I’m not being naughty. The “back end” is called the anterior cingulate and it functions as a gateway between the limbic and prefrontal regions of the brain. Its job is filtering information.
Think of the anterior cingulate as a computer screen. There may be a lot of data on your hard drive, yet the screen shows only what you have selected. The same is true for your brain. Where your attention goes, so does your intention.
So why is all this brain-stuff important?
While there is no one-size fits all solution for depression (anxiety, stress, etc), there are many simple steps you can take to alter brain chemistry. Knowing how your brain works and how to “feed” it is the first step toward change.
Small, conscious choices in the right direction can have profound effects. You literally can reshape your brain. I’ll be sharing more in future posts about the influence of neurotransmitters and how you can give yourself a natural booster shot of the good stuff to get you feeling your personal best.