Rachael’s Defenses

topic racism
region amygdala, pre-frontal cortex, temporal lobe
chemicals cortisol

This article’s primary objective is the neurobiology of the brain and not the evolutionary, psychological, and social influences that might have formed the particular brain chemistry.

Rachael walks into the dimly lit bar and scans the faces to locate her friend. Priya is not here yet. She recognizes a guy at the bar as someone she has seen before. She stares at him a little too long, so he looks up at her. But there is no sign of recognition in his face and he looks away.


A black man, whom she does not recognize, walks towards her. Rachael pulls at a handful of her blonde hair with a nervous tug. Her heart races slightly and her palms are a bit sweaty. She smiles and says hello. The guy, Paul, tells her that they have met before. Oh, right, she remembers, she says, but she does not recognize him.

Rachael has seen Paul more often than she has seen the guy at the bar. Why does she recognize him but not Paul? There can be many factors for this discrepancy, but one of them can be a biological one. The man at the bar is white. Rachael is white. Neurosurgeon Alexandra Golby conducted a study in which she discovered that the face recognition areas in the temporal lobe are more active when people see someone of their own race. This higher activity leads to higher recall of the faces of people of their own race. Rachael’s brain is not unique in making this discrimination.

Why does her heart race when she sees Paul? This is a slightly racist response to seeing a black man she does not recognize. But it is not a conscious one. According to studies, many white people (most of the studies have been performed on white people) show an increased activity in the amygdala when they see a black face. The degree of response varies from person to person and the intensity of the response can be matched to the degree to which the person is a racist. The racing of her heart is triggered by the higher activity in her amygdala, the area of that brain that responds to fear by activating the fight-or-flight response and places the body in a stress mode.

Priya walks in to the bar and goes towards the guy at the bar. Paul leaves Rachael and goes up to Priya and gives her a hug. Priya’s amygdala activity stays the same when she interacts with Paul or Rachael or anyone else of any race. Her mother is Japanese and her father is from Palestine. She has had an early start in being comfortable with people of different races. Environmental factors contribute significantly to a person’s racist attitudes and thus in forming the chemical patterns of their brain. This is a positive indication that racist attitudes can be changed at the biological level.

Paul is happy to get away from Rachael. She fails to recognize him despite having had several conversations with him and he feels tense around her. Her body language is aloof towards him. It could be that she does not like him but he is starting to sense that perhaps it has to do with his race. Paul is right and Rachael does have racist tendencies even though she is not a racist, per se. She has friends of other races but she is most comfortable with people of her own race and exhibits other prejudiced characteristics. Rachael’s racist response to Paul raises the cortisol, the stress hormones, in both their bodies. Thus, her response not only hurts Paul but also harms her.

If not managed properly, issues of racism can lead to unpleasant results not only for the victims but for the racist herself. If Rachael continues to think and behave in her current mode, she is setting herself up for a future of stress leading to health problems. In order to change her automatic racist responses, she will first need to become more aware of her responses and consciously work on changing them.

What can she do to change her biological response? There is another part of the brain which is also activated when a white person sees a black face. The prefrontal cortex, the region that manages information and puts a brake on the emotional responses of the amygdala, is also activated when study participants respond to a black face. This part of the brain, located in the anterior part of the frontal lobe, is involved in learning and behavior control.  Thus, conscious efforts made by a person to change their behavior can train the pre-frontal cortex to manage the amygdala-responses more effectively, and thus minimize the cortisol and any other potential side effects of racism.

Rachael does not need to know the inner workings of her brain to effect change. She just needs to understand that her behavior is counterproductive not just towards herself but towards society in general. This understanding could lead to healthier brain chemistry and a better life for herself and for others around her.


Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.


1.      Smith, Jeremy A., Marsh, J., & Mendoza-Denton, R., Are We Born Racist? Beacon Press 2010.

2.      Zimmer, Carl., This is your brain on racism. Or is that liberal guilt?, Discover Magazine, November 18, 2003

3.      Miller EK, Freedman DJ, Wallis JD. The prefrontal cortex: Categories, concepts and cognition. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2002;357:1123–1136. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12217179]


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.


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.

Get Moving [topic: exercise]


“Eli, what are you on man?” John says.

“What do you mean?” Eli says, “You know I don’t do drugs.”

“Cigarettes are a drug.”

“I’ve cut back on those.”

Eli and his friend John are playing a video-game.

After Eli wins the game, they go out for dinner.

“That’s the first time I’ve won in a few weeks,” Eli says as they walk towards their favorite pizzeria. “You are losing your edge, man.”

“You have been playing better than usual.” John says.

After dinner, Eli turns down John’s offer for a ride and walks the ten blocks that it takes to get home. It’s 11:30pm when he gets home but he’s feeling energized. He buys online tickets to see a local band, pays off a few bills, and reads until he falls asleep after midnight.

Next morning, he is alert and energized despite lack of sufficient sleep. After work, he goes to a dinner meeting with an investment club. He has been reading and learning a lot lately about financial planning and has made some good investments. Maybe that’s why he’s been happier than usual lately, he thinks.

Eli’s moods have been relatively positive for the last few months. He has also been calmer at work. Instead of getting frustrated with a colleague whom he considers dim-witted, Eli has grown slightly more patient and understanding.

A few weeks later, he’s watching a tennis game on television with his sister. An ad for Prozac comes on.

“Are you taking that stuff these days, Eli?” his sister says.

“What stuff?”

“You know, Prozac or … whatever it was that you were taking a few years ago.”


“You seem more relaxed these days,” she says.

He nods but doesn’t really know what to tell her. He has already told her about the breakup with the girl he was seeing and that there’s no one new in the picture. Nothing much has changed at work or otherwise.

“How’s your tennis game going these days,” his brother-in-law asks.

“Oh, I found a good partner and I’ve been playing three times a week for several months now.”

The change in Eli’s attitude may partly be a result of the regular exercise that he’s doing.

“I like to say that exercise is like taking a little Prozac or a little Ritalin at just the right moment,” says John J. Ratey, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “It affects mood, vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being.” Ratey’s claim is supported by an experiment led by Yale scientist, Ronald Duman. The study discovered that exercise caused activation in the brain resulting in effects similar to those achieved by anti-depressants. Since Eli has had depression tendencies in the past where he benefitted from Prozac, his new exercise routine might be having a similar anti-depressant effect on him.

Dr. Duman’s study determined that exercise specifically activates a gene called VGF (not an acronym but the actual name of the gene). This gene releases chemicals that support the development of new nerve cells. Ratey refers to this effect as “Miracle Gro” for the brain. This does not mean that exercising will make a person any more intelligent. But it does improve the brain networks’ capacity for learning. This theory has been put to application at Naperville Central high School near Chicago which has instituted a pre-class exercise routine and teachers claim that exam results are showing a significant improvement.

Another study at Columbia University Medical Center, led by Dr. Scott A. Small, has shown a possible link between exercise and memory. In Dr. Small’s experiment, the mice grew new brain cell in the dentate gyrus, after consistent exercise. This is an area that is implicated in the memory loss associated with age. More research will be required to make a direct correlation between exercise and memory, however.

It’s not possible to measure the changes in Eli’s brain without scientific tools. More information about his recent intellectual prowess would be required to make even an informal correlation between his tennis games and increase in intellectual effectiveness.

Vigorous exercise is speculated to increase the production of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone that activates the brain’s reward center. Dopamine can also help control addictive behavior like smoking. “Dopamine works by replacing or satisfying the need for nicotine,” Ratey says. A study at University of Exeter in England, led by PhD student Kate Janse Van Rensburg, found that physical exertion reduced the desire for a cigarette. It’s difficult to make a direct correlation between Eli’s new exercise routine and his reduction in cigarette smoking but evidence suggests that this might be possible.

Another well-known result of exercise is a reduction in stress level. This is obvious in Eli’s case as witnessed by his friends and family. Stress is caused by accumulation of Adrenalin and other hormones in the bloodstream. Initially, these chemicals help power the body to deal with the stressful situation. An excess accumulation of these hormones is toxic. Exercise increases the blood flow to the brain which helps the brain to purge these toxic by-products of stress. “It builds up armies of antioxidants such as Vitamins E and C,” Ratey says about exercise. “These help brain cells protect us from future stress.”

Given all the quantifiable benefits, it is not surprising that exercise is being considered in dealing with a range of brain disorders. Dr. Ratey recommends exercise for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In addition to dopamine, Ratey says that exercise elevates the level of norepinephrine in the brain, a chemical that affects the frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for rational behavior. “It’s the part of the brain that puts the brakes on when the ref makes a terrible decision and you want to beat him up,” says Ratey. “It also helps to still the impulsivity and still the cravings for immediate gratification as it works to wake up the executive function of the frontal cortex, which in turn allows for delay, better choices, a bit more time to evaluate consequences,” says Ratey.

“You want to ready your brain for learning,” Ratey says. “For that to happen, all the chemicals must ‘jog’ into place.” It’s good to know that we can have some control over our brain functions. For those of us who do not have a regular exercise habit, however, this is yet another motivational factor to get out there and do something for our mind by doing something for our body. Perhaps, it can lead to the same changes in mood and quality of results that Eli is experiencing.

Leena Prasad has a journalism degree from Stanford University. Her writing portfolio is available at http://www.FishRidingABike.com and she can be reached at leena@fishridingabike.com.

Dr. Nicola Wolfe is the neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.

References for this article: WebMd.com, JohnRatey.com, Yale.edu