This lecture was inspired by three books written by three great scientists and clinicians. Rick Hanson and his book Buddha’s brain, Daniel Siegel with the book Pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology and Louis Cozolino with the book The Neuroscience of psychotherapy.
I will present this lecture using questions and answers format.
Question #1: How would you define what the brain is?
Answer: The brain is the body’s information processor that regulates the internal environment (body) and determines the response to the external environment (behavior)
Question #2: Why do we say the brain is a complex system?
Answer: The brain has 1.1 trillion cells and 100 billion “gray matter “neurons. The brain is always on 24/7/365. Typical neuron makes more than 5000 connections with other neurons so there are approximately 500 trillion synapsis. The brain has potential for 10 to the millionth power brain states.
Question #3: How does the brain develop?
Answer: The brain develops through synaptogenesis and apoptosis. We are born with many more neurons than we will ever need. Genes, environment, and experience affect the density of the neural networks. As we develop and grow some networks are pruned.
Question #4: What is the “experience “for the brain?
Answer: The “experience “involves activation of neural firing in response to a stimulus.
Question #5: What is neural plasticity?
Answer: Neuroplasticity relates to changes in brain connections in response to experience. Structural change leads to change in brain function, mental experience, and bodily states. The sculpting of the brain by experience is also called memory. Memory is divided into explicit which relates to personal recollections and semantic memory, or implicit when it relates to bodily states, emotional residues, expectations, object relations, perspectives. Implicit memory also relates to behavior repertoire and inclinations, what it feels like to be “me”.
Question #6: How are neural connections organized on a macro level?
Answer: Neural connections are organized into structural and functional brain networks.
Question #7: Have you heard of the term Triune brain (or three brains in one)?
Answer: Triune brain theory was developed by Paul McLean, who was a senior research scientist and the National Institute of Mental Health. He claimed that our brain is designed by the evolution into three structurally and functionally distinct parts. The first one is reptilian, the second mammalian, and the third human.
Question #8: Our three brains do not necessarily work well together. Do you know why?
Answer: Each of these brains process information in a distinctive manner and has a separate agenda.
Question #9: What is the main agenda of the reptilian brain?
Answer: Reptilian brain is a so-called selfish brain because it helps us to survive individually. It is responsible for arousal, homeostasis, safety, and reproduction. The primary behaviors are: freeze, fight, flight, eat, and mate.
Question #10: What is the agenda of the mammalian brain?
Answer: Mammalian brain is social brain, and it helps community to survive. This brain is involved with learning, memory, and emotion.
Question #11: What is the main agenda of the human brain?
Answer: Human brain is a self-aware brain, and it helps communities thrive. It is responsible for conscious thought, planning, problem-solving, refined analysis of information, inhibition of lower parts of the brain.
In summary Triune brain theory indicates that the reptilian brain is made of brainstem and cerebellum. It is an instinctive part of the brain that is on autopilot in its function. The mammalian brain occupies limbic system. It is a reactive part of the brain and makes fast decisions with survival value. The human brain is neocortex. It is a reflective part of the brain because it reasons and rationalizes.
Question #12: Do you know how are three brains influencing goal-oriented behavior?
Answer: The reptilian brain avoids hazards (“sticks “, threats, penalties, and pain). The mammalian brain approaches rewards (“carrots”, opportunities, pleasure). The human brain attaches to others and seeks proximity and form bonds.
Question #13: What is considered to be “normal “state of our brains?
Answer: Homebase of the human brain is the state when we are not threatened, ill, in pain, hungry, upset, or chemically disturbed. At that time, our brain is calm, and we experience strength, safety, and peace. We are contented and experience gratefulness, fulfillment, and satisfaction. We are caring and experience love, closeness, bonding, friendship and belonging.
Question #14: What happens under stress?
The urgency of survival switches the brain into the reactive mode, powerful in the rapidity, intensity, and inflexibility of its activations. Fear (avoid system) gets activated and our perception is concerned about harms being present or lurking. Our primary action is flight, fight or freeze. We consciously experience fear, anger, or weakness.
Question #15: Which brain structure is involved?
The amygdala is our inner eye (homeland security) that gets activated as an alarm system for threat appraisal and triggers the stress response system in our body which involves HPA axis with the release of adrenaline and cortisol. In addition, the sympathetic branch of autonomic nervous system prepares the body for flight or fight. Evolutionary bias is toward activation of the avoid system. Negative stimuli command more attention. If the stress is prolonged it has potential to cause dysfunction of the avoid system that leads to disorders such as:
- Anxiety disorders characterized by excessive fear, anxiety, or avoidance.
- Posttraumatic stress disorder related to life-threatening trauma, reexperiencing and excessive arousal.
- Impulsive violence with excessive fight behavior, and
- Depression with learned helplessness.
Question #16: Is there activation of the approach system when under stress?
Answer: When we cannot attain important goals that could lead to the activation of the approach system. We perceive scarcity, loss, unreliability, and do not expect any rewards. Our action is to grasp and acquire and consciously we experience greed, longing, frustration, disappointment.
Question #17: Which brain systems are involved?
Answer: Reward circuit with its mesolimbic dopamine pathway that leads to focused attention, intense motivation, goal directedness, craving, and persistence. Dopamine is responsible for life’s pleasures through movement, food, sex, and achievement. These are natural rewards, but if we use drugs of abuse the same mesolimbic dopamine circuit is activated, but much stronger to the point of dopamine flooding the whole brain. As a result dysfunction of the approach system could lead to addiction, compulsion, and hoarding. Apart from dopamine there is a significant release of other neurotransmitters such as opioid peptides, serotonin, and GABA.
Question #18: Is their activation of any other systems under stress?
Answer: When we feel isolated, disconnected, unseen, unappreciated and unloved attachment system gets activated and we perceive separation and neglect. The main action behavior is clinging, seeking approval, and reproaching. Our conscious experience is loneliness, heartbreak, envy, jealousy, and shame.
Question #19: How is this knowledge relevant for psychotherapy?
Answer: Psychotherapy relies upon the power of relationships to trigger the neuroplastic process necessary for learning and growth. Identifying inherent problems in how the brain processes information and developing methods to circumvent or correct them is a solid foundation upon which to base a therapeutic alliance. An unmet need for safety, which is indicated by anxiety, anger, or helplessness is best addressed by activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and calming of the sympathetic nervous system through mindfulness and relaxation. An unmet need for satisfaction is indicated by frustration, disappointment, loss, failure, or the dreariness of life and could be addressed through activating and installing rewarding experiences of goal attainment, accomplishment, gladness, gratitude, pleasure, and success through behavioral activation. The role of experience both positive and negative and choices such as lifestyle, brain hygiene activities in shaping and reshaping of the brain provides a neuroscientific explanation for both psychopathology and treatment recommendation.