Browsing the archives for the brain chemistry tag.
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Everything Sucks. Reboot? Y/N

Handling negative emotions

Every once in a while, I have a day where enough seems to have gone wrong that I’m lodged deep in a lousy mood. Sometimes I’m not clever enough to be aware of this right away, so it persists until mindfulness finally kicks in with something to the effect of “You’re in a bad mood, and there is no reason for it unless it’s somehow helping you. Is it helping?”

It generally isn not helping. So I try to find my way out of that lousy mood using one of the techniques in this post.

The human brain is not very much like a computer. It changes its own structure constantly, stores information in locations scattered throughout the brain, and even runs two different systems (one neural and mostly cognitive, the other chemical and mostly emotional) at the same time. There’s more on this in my article about science fiction and the human brain at Clarkesworld.

But even though the brain doesn’t work the way computers do in many respects, it is capable of reboots: shutting down everything that’s currently running–including bad moods–and starting from scratch. However, reboots are not always easy. There are at least two things that get in the way.

The first is called “mood congruity”: this is the tendency of human beings to have trouble really imagining any emotional situation other than the one they’re already in. If you’re in a bad mood and you picture enjoying a nice walk outside, chances are it will be difficult for you to believe in your gut that the walk will be enjoyable–even if you have every reason to think it will be, and even if it generally has been under similar circumstances in the past. Whatever mood we’re in, we tend to imagine the future fitting the same mood. This is one reason the advice “Cheer up! Things will get better” often sounds so hollow. Mood congruity can be overcome, but it’s helpful to realize that the way our brians work, they’re a little limited at imagining an emotion while experiencing a contrary emotion.

Another barrier is that generally speaking, any mental control we have over our emotions happens by thinking (cognition), but cognition can change much more quickly than emotion, because so much of emotion has to do with chemicals like dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin, adrenaline, and others. The chemical states that influence our brains aren’t capable of changing nearly as quickly as our thoughts. We can go from thinking about a horrible tragedy to thinking about a really funny joke and back all within seconds, but our emotional state would not be able to keep up. This means that any mental effort to change mood needs to be kept up for a minute or two at least to allow emotions to catch up with cognition. It also means that idea repair doesn’t have its full effect right away, a subject I’ll be tackling in another article soon.

Knowing the obstacles, what are the techniques we can use to reboot our brains? Well, computers can go through a “warm boot” (rebooting through software only) or a “cold boot” (physically restarting the computer), and the same is true of our brains. A mental cold boot can be accomplished with techniques that completely clear out what’s going on in our minds. Two excellent approaches for this are meditation (which narrows focus to a very specific subject while letting everything else kind of float away) and exercise (which creates a physiological state that tends to help us cut back to a minimum of thinking).

Techniques for warm boots change attention, immediate experience, and/or thinking. Idea repair is one very useful means to do a warm boot. Other methods include emotional antidotes; visualization; and getting into a flow state (or at least distracted by something interesting for a bit).

Regardless of which method you use, rebooting takes attention, effort, and a little time. However, it often doesn’t take any more than that, and while not every bad mood can be banished in minutes, many of them can.

Photo by rofreg

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When we don’t like the things we want and don’t want the things we like

Habits, States of mind

We tend to think of “wanting” and “liking” as being closely related: if we want something, then we will necessarily like it when we get it, and if we like something, then we will feel moved to action–or so the thinking goes.

People have been known to do some interesting things using this assumption, for instance working very hard to get somewhere in life, and then not liking where they are when they get there, or bingeing on a particular food and not enjoying a single bite.


gremlins: the real root of the problem?

So what’s going on here? Are we not enjoying things because we aren’t paying attention? Is it ennui? Are gremlins somehow involved?

The root of this matter is that liking and wanting are separate systems in the brain. Under normal, healthy circumstances, they’re pretty closely related: there’s a good chance that getting something we want will give us feelings of pleasure. But there are situations where they’re actually at odds with each other: the more we want something, the less pleasure it will give us when we get it. This is true of drug addiction, but also true of many other habitual behaviors, like overeating, compulsive shopping, and video game obsession.

The logical thing to assume (you would think) would be that people who overeat enjoy food more than people who don’t, and that’s why they overeat; or that people who max out their credit cards with unnecessary purchases enjoy getting a new pair of shoes a lot more than people who stay within their budgets. Yet when someone does something to excess, it often doesn’t look like they’re enjoying it more–it just looks like they’re more compelled–they want it more, but they don’t like it more.

And in fact, much of the brain chemistry of doing things to excess is the same whether we’re talking about watching too much TV or eating too many doughnuts or drinking too much coffee or shooting heroin: the more we overdo something, the less our brain reacts to dopamine release when we have that thing. Dopamine is a brain chemical that tends to make us feel calm and satisfied, and its normal purpose is to remind us to do things like eat and procreate, because if dopamine levels are low (as when we don’t do things we’ve evolved to want to do), we feel agitated. Doing too much of something makes our brain less receptive to dopamine, which means we require more of that thing to feel comfortable and happy. To someone who doesn’t drink much alcohol, one beer can be very satisfying–but to an alcoholic, one beer is barely noticeable.

There are at least two other reasons that we might want something we don’t like. First, there’s habit: if we do something very regularly, regardless of whether it makes us happy or not, our brains have reinforced the neurons devoted to that activity, and we will feel strongly inclined to keep doing it even if it doesn’t provide us any enjoyment or benefit.

And second, there are the broken ideas I’ve written about here before (more formally called “cognitive distortions”). These are things we tell ourselves that contain some kind of basic flaw. For instance, deciding that someone is a jerk and shouldn’t act toward us as they do can make us act unkindly toward that person, which can contribute to an increasingly aggravating relationship.

And what about not wanting things we do like? This is the effect of broken ideas again. For instance, we might have a task in front of us that seems very difficult,and think “There’s no way I can ever finish that, and it would be painful and awful to try”–when in fact, just getting started on the task can begin to relieve stress, and enough determination can get the entire task done, which can then deliver great benefits. Take for example cleaning out a room in the house that has long served as a “junk room.” Avoiding the junk room can be a continuing source of low-level stress, while getting it cleaned out can be very rewarding (especially after turning it into that home knitting studio we’ve been dreaming of having). Yet do we say to ourselves “Wow, I’m really excited to get that junk room cleaned out”? Not usually.


the junk room: shouldn't this be the kind of thing we can't wait to tackle?

Given these insights, that wanting and liking are not always in step with each other, what do we do about it? The simple answer is that we’re happier when we 1) question our wants and 2) remind ourselves of what actually makes us happy.  If an incident with a coworker makes you want to march into that person’s office and deliver a scathing review of their personal failings, it can be useful to think about whether you’ll really be happy doing that, or might ultimately be happier if you decide to calmly explaining what you didn’t like about the incident (maybe after a suitable cooling-off period). If you’re staring at a menu and feel inexorably drawn toward the buttered onion rings with fat sauce, it may be worth thinking about whether the minute or two that you are really enjoying those onion rings (after the first few bites, our enjoyment of food sometimes drops considerably) is going to be worth the over-full, sleepy feeling you’ll get soon after you eat them and the quarter pound heavier you’ll be as a result. Putting things in this kind of perspective can make doing things you’ll actually like much easier, bringing wanting and liking more in line.

Gremlin illustration by ibtrav
Junk room photo by Steve Jenkins

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