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Neurohacking - Tutorials
Written by NHA   
Wednesday, 18 November 2009 01:01
Article Index
Neurohacking Tutorial 5 - Improving & Augmenting N1 & N2
Stress And Relaxation in Rear Networks
Growth And Development vs Protection Modes
What Happens If Things Go Wrong
Cells That Fire Together Wire Together
Motivation, Coercion and Unconditional Positive Regard
NHA Guide to Methods and Tech
Hacks and Exercices
Notes, References & Answers
All Pages

 

Growth & Development Versus Protection Modes

 

Outside the green zone, people experience extremes of mood and behavior. We explained the difference between stress and anxiety in tutorial 1, and will expand on that a little here:

Biology uses the word “stress” in a very particular way, unlike that of the popular media. You may have encountered the biological usage in physical exercise terminology –we “stress” and “relax” a muscle. A muscle is stressed and relaxed in order to do work, whether that ‘work’ is picking up a pencil or lifting weights. The word ‘stress’ is used in the same sense with regard to the brain and mind. To ‘stress’ the mind, we engage it in the exploration of something it does not know yet, and to ‘relax’ the mind, we assimilate and understand that thing; it becomes ‘known’.

Stress and relaxation are both in the service of growth & development; we stress and relax intelligence by playing with, learning about and exploring new things (stress), and understanding, remembering and mastering them (relaxation), all safely in the green zone. The stress response is what gives us the desire to learn and the neurochemicals necessary to do so, and the relaxation response is what gives us our 'reward', fulfillment, pride in achievement and enjoyment of the new skill or ability that makes learning worthwhile. When we're healthy, the neurotransmitters of the learning cycle keep us in this “growth & development” mode.

Think of the ‘stress response’ as a little light that switches on in response to any kind of desire. The desire to learn something new is indicated by interest, fascination, excitement, curiosity, inspiration. The desire to do something, go somewhere or interact with somebody may carry the same urgency weighting, regardless of whether your desire is about food, sex, solving a puzzle or getting your pilot’s license. It’s a desire to move towards, and interact.

Whenever you feel this way, your brain releases a chemical called Dopamine.

 

 

The blue sections are the various pathways taken by Dopamine; the “desire” half of our pleasure system. [N1 & 2 are marked in red].

 

Myth Busting About Dopamine

Dopamine used to be believed to be the 'pleasure circuit' or 'reward' chemical; only recently has it been discovered that the brain in fact has two part of the pleasure system -desire and reward. Dopamine and oxytocin trigger and modulate feelings of desire, serotonin and endorphins trigger and modulate feelings of reward.

In the light of this discovery, more research findings make sense, for example a dopamine deficient mouse will eat and enjoy food when fed, but has no motivation to feed itself to the extent that it will starve to death (8). Given the chance such animals will self medicate (cocaine, methamphetamine, alcohol and nicotine all stimulate the brain’s dopamine circuits, as do stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin).

Dopamine is about drive and motivation, about figuring out what you have to do to survive and then doing it. The motivation is biology's way of getting you away from a state of deprivation and keeping you alive and thriving. It is also part of the brain’s salience filter, and will focus our attention on both novel objects and on familiar objects that we have imbued with high value, both positive and negative: helpful things and harmful things.

Dopamine signals various parts of the brain and tells them to produce the chemicals to keep your interest, attention and observation where they are supposed to be. Your mind needs to be alert, so your brain then releases chemicals that help it to focus and pay attention and that prepare it for fast learning; among them norepinephrine, acetylcholine, oxytocin and cortisol.

This is the “stress response”, and it is the first step in any kind of interaction, including all learning. If we cannot remain alert and pay attention, if we cannot concentrate, then we cannot observe with clarity what is going on, no matter how sharp our hearing or clear our eyesight.

This neurotransmitter cascade initiates learning and primes memory, focuses our attention and makes up feel keen, playful and explorative. We call the attendant feeling 'curiosity'.

There is no longer any doubt about the link between curiosity and intelligence. We even know the name of the chemical that enables this link; it's a little protein called NCS-1 (neuronal calcium sensor-1). It is NCS-1 binding to dopamine receptors that enables brain cells to communicate in a more efficient way, priming memory for complex tasks and triggering a significant increase in exploratory behavior (curiosity). (4)

The protein has its greatest effect in the hippocampus, which plays an important role in long-term memory and spatial navigation, and what we are looking at in the dopamine pathways outlined in the diagram above is the molecular link between intelligence and curiosity.

As one of the researchers who discovered this link said, “we can put into use the knowledge that fostering curiosity should also foster intelligence and vice versa." (5)

 

The relaxation response (RR) is the ‘fulfillment’ half of our pleasure system. It occurs when your brain chemistry changes in response to assimilation, success, satisfaction, fulfillment or understanding. During this response, heart rate and blood pressure slow, production and maintenance of brain cells increases, memory defragments and files itself by association, and cortisol production is turned off. Serotonin, natural opioids and more oxytocin are released in the brain, making us feel very comfortable and satisfied, yet still ready to interact.

 


 

During natural learning, this response occurs naturally, but when there is too much cortisol present in the bloodstream, it can’t. Effectively the response is turned off., so we have to hack in there and turn it back on, because the RR reduces cortisol levels faster than anything else. To keep cortisol levels healthy and under control before networks are balanced, the body’s relaxation response should always be activated deliberately after the stress response occurs. You can learn the relaxation response with various techniques, and you can also learn input control ‘habit-blockers’ in order to keep your mind from habitually reacting with anxiety in the first place.

Something else we are doing with input control is removing unhealthy sources of more cortisol production so that we can reduce it quickly and train up the brain safely and well. This is how we build up your “immunity to hassle”; by first removing the excess hormone, then learning how to prevent overproduction. We do this first by taking more control over our input, and we’ve already started to look at our lifestyles and think about changes that can reduce cortisol. We’ll continue doing that as we exercise these networks. As you build them up, you’re also building up your whole intelligence.

Every time we stretch and relax the brain, it grows stronger. So in the biological sense, stress is very very good –otherwise you would never be able to learn anything! But just like when working with physical muscles, if we overdo it, stress becomes strain (which is what the general public calls ‘stress’, hence the confusion). Repetitive strain always leads to malfunction and eventually breakdown; in the body, it leads there via injury. In the brain, strain is “anxiety”.

In its extreme form, the stress response becomes the fight/flight response (from an evolutionary perspective it’s very important for survival if you’re likely to be eaten otherwise). During emergencies when the stress response is needed, for example responding very fast to avoid an accident, the body goes into “protection mode”.

If strain becomes chronic (e.g., no relaxation), the body and brain remain in “protection mode”, have no chance to repair or build new tissue, and find it very difficult to learn anything new. The excess of cortisol keeps the mind very busy worrying about things, the brain in a state of constant chemical imbalance, and prevent us from paying attention to most of our input. In other words, when we are in protection mode, the mind is constantly flooded with an overdose of steroids, and growth & development are impossible because your entire biology is focused on protection.

Important thing to remember: it is impossible for the body and mind to be in growth mode and protection mode at the same time. One effectively turns the other off.

In growth & development “stretch” mode, blood flow and nutrients are sent to all networks of the brain, dynamically adapting to supply whatever networks we are using most (indeed, MRI scanning used to depend on blood oxygen levels to tell what parts of the brain were doing what). In the “relax” part of the cycle, blood flow is directed to the central networks where memory is consolidated and defragged, the immune system goes to work repairing any cell damage and destroying any toxins, nutrients are digested and proteins are built and transported. We learn well in all growth mode conditions.

In “protection” mode, Blood supply to the frontal lobes closes down as blood and nutrients are sent to the muscles, bones and peripheral nervous system. Digestion of nutrients stops, blood pressure and heart rate remain permanently elevated, the immune system closes down and all repairs and construction stop. It is impossible to learn well in these conditions.

We'll explain this in more detail in future tutorials when we talk about how brain cells respond to their environment. For now you just need to remember that if you stay in the green zone, protection mode won't be engaged unless there is a genuine emergency (although protection mode damages the body, it's still worth the payoff for biology to save your life in an emergency, and that's what protection mode is for.)

 

Cortisol in Depth

We've talked a lot about the anxiety hormone cortisol and it's time to look into it in depth:

Cortisol is not some kind of rogue chemical. It is an important natural hormone in the body in small doses, involved in the following functions and more: 

  • Proper glucose metabolism
  • Regulation of blood pressure
  • Insulin release for blood sugar maintenance
  • Immune function
  • Inflammatory response

 

Small increases of cortisol happen in the stress response and have some positive effects: 

  • A quick burst of energy
  • Heightened memory functions & learning capacity
  • A burst of increased immunity
  • Lower sensitivity to pain
  • Helps maintain homeostasis in the body


The protection mode prompts the release of cortisol all the time we remain in that state. While cortisol is an important and helpful part of the stress response, higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream like those associated with anxiety have been shown to have negative effects, such as: 

  • Impaired cognitive performance
  • Suppressed thyroid function
  • Blood sugar imbalances & diabetes
  • Decreased bone density
  • Decrease in muscle tissue
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body
  • Increased abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat stored in other areas of the body.


Cortisol secretion varies naturally among individuals because its control is partly due to gene transcription, so one person may secrete higher levels of cortisol than another in the same situation. It also builds up in the bloodstream over time, so the longer you have been anxious the more you may have to get rid of. Busting the myth that worrying will make you thin, studies have shown that people who secrete higher levels of cortisol also tend to eat more food, and they crave food that is higher in carbohydrates than people who secrete less cortisol. If you’re a worrier or a ‘nervous’ person and you're overweight, it’s especially important for you to learn the relaxation response.

Cortisol levels can be tested with tech, but it's expensive and in the long run it's better to increase your own awareness of your body and mind (this is all part of 'knowing yourself'). It's much easier to assess yourself if you keep an eye on your habits and behavior; these will show symptoms of being out of balance often before the body will.

 

 



Last Updated on Monday, 29 May 2017 18:10