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How does the brain work? Using real and fictional characters to setup a story framework, I write about the science of the human (and sometimes animal) mind. I am a journalist rather than a neuroscientist so my approach is exploratory.

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We got sold out

 

topic Money & Fear

 

Banks got bailed out
We got sold out!

Banks got bailed out
We got sold out!

Banks got bailed out
We got sold out!

Frida rolls down her car window. Hundreds of people are chanting, moving towards her. Not exactly towards her but she’s in a car going east on Mission Street and they are walking in the opposite lane. Motor vehicle traffic is at a standstill.

Ah, the Wall Street occupation of New York City has moved here, she thinks.

Whose streets?
Our Streets!

Whose streets?
Our Streets!

Whose streets?
Our Streets!

The people in the street chant, as if responding to her thoughts. She meets the gaze of one of the protestors. Suddenly she feels uncomfortable in her black 2011 BMW.

She panics. Frida is reacting to what she perceives as a threat to her current lifestyle, as if the people protesting on the street are going to take away what she has worked hard to achieve.

Her mind flashes back to a decade ago. Her college scholarship funding has fallen through. Her single mom works two jobs and does not have the money to pay the high tuition and expenses for the private college that she plans to attend. Frida spends the next two years working and taking out a loan to pay for college. Life at college is difficult. She is older than the other students and doesn’t have the free-flowing funds that they seem to have. Her social life is limited. Instead of enjoying college life, she is anxious to graduate with a business degree and start a new life, hopefully with one of the top business-consulting firms.

Her heart is beating faster. Her hands are clammy as she holds the steering wheel tighter.

Fear is a natural reaction to the potential threat to one’s safety. It can cause the fight or flight response leading to anxiety. This is what is happening to Frida.

The perception of danger is handled by many parts of the brain but the amygdala, a part of the limbic system of the brain, is the chief operator in initiating the fight or flight response. In Frida’s situation, fear perception leads the amygdala to send a danger message to the anterior nucleus of the hypothalamus, another part of the limbic system.

The hypothalamus manages a wide range of basic biological functions and metabolic reactions. For Frida, it initiates a chain reaction of chemicals which leads to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system produces a surge of the hormone adrenaline. Frida’s heart is racing and her hands are clammy. This tension is caused by the excess adrenaline in her bloodstream.

She notices a large sign “We are the 99%.”

Frida’s hands relax on the steering wheel. She realizes that she is also in the ninety-nine percentage. This is not about semi-wealthy people like herself but about the top one percentage who own a majority of the wealth in the United States. She takes a deep breath and starts to calm down. The level of adrenaline in her bloodstream is not going up anymore. She turns on the radio and flips to her favorite classical music station. The music distracts her from here stress and sympathetic arousal, helping her to access other brain regions to restore a non-stressful state.


Links to past columns are available at WhoseBrainIsIt.com and Leena’s writing portfolio is available at FishRidingABike.com. Leena  has a journalism degree from Stanford University.

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: Dr. Wolfe’s Neuroscience class at Berkeley extension, InnovationMagazine.com, ScholarPedia.org