Harold’s Elephants

 

topic joy
organ limbic system
chemicals dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, serotonin, cortisol

The envelope has been lying on his desk for two days. Harold is unable to open it. There is too much at stake. The words inside that envelope will change his life.

It’s too thin, Harold thinks. It must be a rejection letter. That would mean that he’d have to go back to his life as a chef. He likes cooking but after ten years, he has become bored of doing it for a living. He took a five year break to try making a living as a sculptor. These five have been the best years of his life. He doesn’t want to stop but he has used up all his savings. Harold is engaged to be married and wants to start a family soon. He is 41 years old and wants to have a stable career soon, one way or another. This is his last chance to be financially stable while living his passion.

Harold opens the envelope.

Congratulation, it says. Harold stares. He reads and read again. “Congratulations. We would like to hire you to design and sculpt the elephant sculpture for the newest branch of our restaurant. You will also be designing unique sculptures for each one of our 21 restaurants worldwide.” There are instructions on going to a website to complete the paperwork.

Harold is too shocked to react. He hears the front door open. His fiancée walks in. She is sweating from her daily jog and is heading for the bathroom when he leaps up to go talk to her. He gushes out the news. He says it so fast that she has to ask him to repeat himself.

There are chemical activities in Harold’s brain causing his happiness. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters because they transmit signals amongst the brain’s neurons. The primary neurotransmitters spurting in Harold’s brain is dopamine and serotonin. The brain spurts dopamine when it gets what it wants. It secretes serotonin when it feels a sense of pride.

His fiancée is also happy. In addition to dopamine, her brain is spurting endorphin from the runner’s high that she has just had. It is possible that she might also be releasing serotonin via association with someone who has just established a job which will ensure survival related safety and security for her.

As mentioned in the book Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin, Dr. Loretta Breuning talks about a fourth chemical, oxytocin. This is the neurotransmitter that Harold and his fiancée’s brains secrete on a consistent basis. Oxytocin is released as a part of developing a trust based relationship with another human being. Sexual intimacy and other bonding activities, like touching, also cause a spike in oxytocin levels. Harold and his fiancée have a healthy level of oxytocin in their system because they live together within the framework of a trusting relationship.

Harold and his fiancée are both experiencing a burst of many happy chemicals and thus a burst of joy. But the happy chemicals exploding in their brains are not all the same, so their happiness level is not exactly the same.

Earlier in the day, while Harold was teetering on the verge of opening the envelope, his brain was probably spiking with cortisol, a chemical produced by the brain when it feels stressed. His cortisol level is down but not completely gone and he has no reason to have endorphin in his system. His fiancée has endorphin in her system but no reason to have cortisol. They both have dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin circulating around. The levels of the chemical might be higher in Harold’s system because he is directly affected by the news. Without sophisticated machines, it is not easy to say who is happier, but it’s easier to guess the comparative levels of chemicals in each person’s neural circuits.

“Your brain is always seeking ways to get more serotonin without losing oxytocin or increasing cortisol,” says Dr. Breuning in her book. The brain does not want cortisol, the “unhappy” drug. Everyday life, of course, creates spurts of cortisol, and the brain struggles to lower the level. It is always trying to maximize its happy drugs and minimize the unhappy ones. But sometimes it has to negotiate. For example, in order to secure oxytocin from a bonding relationship, e.g., friendship, the brain might have to sacrifice serotonin that comes from pride. It needs to calculate whether the serotonin sacrifice is worth the oxytocin gain.

All these chemicals are managed by the brain’s limbic system, also known as the reptilian brain. The limbic system consists of the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and other parts. All mammals have a limbic system and thus the ability to secrete these happy hormones. From an evolutionary perspective, these chemicals serve as a reward mechanism to train the brain. For example, romantic love and sexual intercourse produce dopamine and oxytocin. This trains the mind to seek love and sex and thus contribute to the propagation and survival of the species. Success at a job can produce serotonin and thus train the brain to seek more success and thus secure financial security required for survival. Exercise produces pain, which results in endorphin production. The pain is masked by the endorphins and the body is trained to seek more exercise, thus equipping the body with better survival mechanism.

Since the theory of evolution is widely accepted and relatively well understood in scientific circles, it seems to have become fashionable to explain the brain’s chemical secretions in terms of survival mechanisms. The explanations seem to fit and make sense, but human beings are different than other mammals and not necessarily at the mercy of evolution. In Harold’s example, if he feels stressed while designing the elephant structure, he can reduce the cortisol level in his brain by seeking his fiancée’s company, which could increase the oxytocin level. Or he can go for a run to increase the endorphin levels. He can also visualize what it would be like to see his sculptor inside the restaurant which could help increase the serotonin. Another option would be to increase his dopamine level by treating himself to a good meal or to something else that he wants. The more Harold knows about how the neurotransmitter can help him maintain a joyful life, the better he can manage them to negotiate happiness.


References:

1. Breuning, Loretta Graziano (2012-02-14). Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin. System Integrity Press.

2. Ratey, John J. MD. A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theatres of the Brain. Random House, Inc.

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