Stress Can Change Our Genes

In my last blog post reviewing Marc Lewis’ book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs, I indicated that our brains, with all their neuronal and chemical intricacy, appear to respond to a higher authority than just chemistry. There seems to be a “self” or a “soul” which may alter the direction of an addiction–or other behavior. That is good news for all of us. It means that when we are depressed, anxious, or even addicted, there is an “I” that can come to our rescue. That is the message I have been presenting throughout my website, starting many years ago before there were blogs. I indicated at the end of that post that there was a second piece of evidence to support my proposition. Let me digress for a moment to set the groundwork for what I am about to share with you. Lemark’s Theory of Use and Disuse                   When I took high school biology (a very long time ago) we learned that there was a scientist called Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1809 who preceded Charles Darwin. Lamarck had a theory of “use and disuse” which said that characteristics that animals use get somehow incorporated into their genes and can therefore be passed down to their offspring, while unused characteristics get genetically dropped. The theory was rejected and we students laughed at such quaint ideas. Well, we can stop laughing. Researchers across the country and throughout the world are studying the field of epigenetics. This includes the effects of what are called epigenetic markers. This is the science of noting which genes are...

The Soul Behind The Brain

When depression hits, what do you do? When your Life Partner is not good enough to chase away the anxiety, what do you do? When past, black predictions by parents or others of your future failure, haunt your thoughts, what do you do? Well, of course, you blame your anxiety, depression, and self-hatred on a “chemical imbalance.” You claim that your present state is inherited and your only solution must be chemical. There are two new pieces of evidence to disprove that which will, hopefully, help you out of that pit of doubt that sends you pill-searching, either legitimately or illegitimately. People who suffer so intensely from depression and anxiety that they absolutely can’t handle one more minute of it often turn to prescription medication or illegal drugs to get them through the pain. The first piece I would like to share with you is a new book by Marc Lewis called Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs. A Neuroscientist Studies His Addicted Brain         What is different in this book from all the other chronicles of addiction and recovery is the fact that Lewis happened to have been a doctoral student in psychology, specializing in neuropsychology when he finally escaped the chains of his addiction, so the book is sprinkled liberally with explanations of how the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex work, things you’ve seen discussed before in this blog. But there’s more to it than that. There is a point—after losing a marriage; after many thefts during the night; after Lewis is finally caught and faces jail time; after being...

How Your Right and Left Brain Work Together to Make Sense of The World

“No,” Jake said adamantly, “Don’t you remember? I was standing right there, not here, and I was with Sam, not Sylvia.” “That’s not the way it was at all,” Stacey said with growing annoyance. “Why do you get everything mixed up? I have a much better memory of things than you do and you are all wrong.” Jake and Stacey can argue until the cows come home. There will never be a way to prove that either one was right nor will either one suddenly “remember” the situation differently. And this has less to do with the desire to win an argument than with how our brains work. I read an interesting book recently, Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. It is stocked well with research findings so whether you like or don’t like some of Eagleman’s conclusions (I don’t care for one or two of them), the research is nevertheless good enough to stop an argument about what really happened last week at your mother-in-law’s house. Split-Brain Research Eagleman reports on research done by Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux with people whose right and left brain hemispheres were unable to communicate with each other. By studying people with split-brain function like this, scientists can gain knowledge about the different roles of the hemispheres. They showed a picture of a chicken claw to the right eye (left hemisphere) and a snow shovel to the left eye (right hemisphere). The man was asked to point at pictures which illustrated what he had just been shown. His right hand pointed to a picture of a chicken, and...

A Brain Map of Your Emotions

When the pharmaceutical industry finally implodes, it will not be from the many unlawful death lawsuits against them (although there are many), and it will not be from the increasing disclosure by doctors of payments they received from them for doing presumably unbiased research (although disclosure requirements are getting stronger). The pharmaceutical industry will implode from the simple act of customers taking their mental wellbeing into their own hands through increased knowledge of neuroscience. Do you think I’m kidding? Scientists are finding out more and more about how the brain works—and turning that information increasingly over to the public which, in turn, uses it to promote its own health. Let’s take an interesting example that I read in the May 28, 2011 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Researchers at Yale and the University of Colorado found that when experimental subjects held a warm object, they later would rate a character in a story as warmer than people who held a cold object would rate the character. Holding a warm object also led to a higher likelihood of experimental subjects donating the money they received from the research to charity. The same article noted that waiters get bigger tips on sunny days than on cloudy ones and people who had touched a heating pad would have greater trust than those who touched an ice pack when playing an economic trust game. What gives? It seems the part of the brain that deals with warmth, the insula, fires neurons associated with psychological warmth when detecting physical warmth. That, the article goes on to say, explains why people who feel rejected...

The Power of the Mind

I sat there watching the IV go into my arm. Normally, IVs don’t bother me; I know that taking my blood, or G-d forbid, needing to give me blood, is good for me, but I have this particular squeamishness about having foreign substances put into my body. Heaven only knows where it came from, but I can remember having it all my life. At least, I’m totally risk free of becoming some kind of drug addict. Good things come where you least expect it.   Anyway, the problem with this particular IV was that it was neither taking nor giving me blood. Rather, it was a standard dye for a stress test cardiogram, one, I might add, that I never had before. Of more significance on this particular sunny morning is that I hadn’t bothered to read the pre-test instructions and I was not mentally prepared for the procedure.   They finished injecting the dye and had me sit in the waiting room for 45 minutes “for the dye to get into your system.” Just what I needed. I could imagine that dye—an alien substance, radioactive no less, threading its way through my veins. My head got light. I knew immediately what was happening. The last time I fainted, my little girl, then about seven, was being tested for allergies with a “scratch test” where they put a small amount of allergens with needles into the skin, a row of scratches up and down her little arms. She was fine but I had fainted.   I took the garbage basket at hand and put my head down between my...

The “Chemical Imbalance” Myth

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from The Florida Jewish News If my article, “If Its Not a Chemical Imbalance, What Is It?” threw you into a tailspin, I apologize. I believe the requirement for clarity rests on the writer, not the reader. Let me be very clear: The notion that there is a lack of serotonin in the brains of depressed people and that they consequently have a “chemical imbalance” is a fiction. Furthermore, doctors who promote this fiction are not acting in the best interests of their patients and need to rethink the matter carefully before continuing along this path. No Evidence Of Serotonin Decrease Elliott Valenstein is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Michigan with no financial ties to any particular industry. In his book, Blaming the Brain: The Truth About Drugs and Mental Health, published in 1998, he states, “I did not write this book because I am opposed to using drugs to treat mental illness. . . I do not treat patients and have no reason to be for or against drug therapy, psychotherapy . . . or to take any side in any disagreement between nonmedical therapists and psychiatrists. . . I have spent over forty years working as a biopsychologist studying how the brain and other biological factors such as hormones and drugs influence behavior.” Valenstein states: “There is not a shred of evidence of any . . . decrease [nowadays] in brain serotonin. In another book, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer describes the ‘revolutionary’ finding that major personality and behavioral traits are regulated by the balance between norepinephrine and serotonin....

If It’s Not A “Chemical Imbalance,” What Is It?

REPRINTED BY PERMISSION from FLorida Jewish News We take medicine to feel better, right? If we, God forbid, are diabetic and diet can’t get it under control, we can take medicine for it. For a headache, have an acetaminophen. For a tricky ticker, there’s an array of cardio meds your doctor will prescribe. For depression, just pop that happiness pill. Hold on. Not so fast, there, partner. You don’t want to pop that happiness pill unless you want to be married to it for the rest of your life. Here’s a biological rule: When your body notices the presence of a substance in it, it says to itself, “Oh, here’s some endorphin (or thyroid stimulating hormone, or whatever), so I don’t have to produce any of it.” In other words, the more you put in from the outside, the less your body will produce. Chicken and Egg Problem Now you’re going to be quick to tell me that I’ve got it backwards, that your body wasn’t producing the substance in the first place and that’s why your doctor prescribed it for you. Well, yes, and no. You’re right that your body wasn’t producing it at the moment. Remember, you came in to get some help with depression (or anxiety or whatever), so of course your body wasn’t—at that point in time—producing the chemicals that would be flowing freely if you were happy. But which came first? Were you unhappy because the chemicals for happiness just weren’t there in your body—as the pharmaceutical companies have spent billions trying to convince medical doctors and psychologists so that they can convince their...

What Hypnosis Is

Hypnosis is a naturally occurring state. Many people believe they can’t “get” hypnotized when, actually, they fall into trance all the time. For example, in boring classes or lectures, you may notice your mind “wandering.” Where does it go? Generally, when something rouses you out of your reverie, you might not even know what you were thinking when it “went”. That’s trance, or self-hypnosis. Your mind simply blanked out into a pleasant state of relaxation–until someone drew your attention to the fact that you weren’t paying attention. Another example occurs all the time during driving. That may be more of an explanation for accidents than cellphones. People’s focus simply drifts off due to the monotony of the road. In fact, on the open road this phenomenon has a name–road hypnosis. Still another example occurs when you read a great book or see a riveting movie. Not only do you forget or not notice your surroundings, but you may become so involved with the characters that you feel emotions related to their lives. Haven’t we all seen–and succumbed to–some “tear-jerkers”? Why do we cry at fiction? — Because we are “in” it; we become part of the story. That is the objective of the author and screenwriter. And we like it too. It’s a way of leaving our reality for a little while; it’s a break. Same thing with hypnosis. You have just explained self-hypnosis that just sort of “happens.” What about going to a therapist for hypnosis? In all the examples above, there are three key elements: The desire or willingness to relax or drift off, the presence of...

Your Brain, Your Attitude, and Psychotropic Drugs

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from South Florida Health, v. 2 (1), pp. 19, 24 I used to be like any other therapist on the subject of psychotropic medication. My rude awakening came one sunny Sunday as my son, then 14, was preparing to visit a friend. “Don’t forget your Ritalin,” I told him, “so you don’t drive your friend’s mother crazy.” “Nah,” he replied, “I’m in the mood to have fun today.” There was that familiar grin on his face. “That’s precisely why you need the meds,” I pointed out. Patiently, and still grinning, he answered, “I can take it if it means that much to you, but I‘ll override it anyway.” “I can take it if it means that much to you, but I’ll override it anyway.” What??? I drove the whole five miles to his friend’s house with my jaw on my knees. What exactly did he mean? As I thought about this over the following months and years, I began to understand why antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, and other psychotropic drugs often stop working-or won’t work at all. The answer is a personal thing. In fact, it’s at the intersection of brain chemistry and the soul. Because emotions originate in a more primitive area of the brain than our rational process, they have been thought not to be too responsive to reason. Therefore, the standard treatment for emotions has up to now been psychotropic medication. However, the neurons firing for emotions, meaning-making, and social relationships all run through the same brain circuits; they interact. This means that emotions are tied to the meaning we place on experience which...
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