Becoming someone else…


topic neuroplasticity
region orbital frontal cortex, cingulate gyrus, caudate nucleus


Dear Doctor Neurostein,

When my 18-years-old daughter was home from college recently, I noticed that she has become extremely germ phobic. This makes sense given that she is currently studying microbiology and is more aware of the ubiquity of microbes in the environment. But her behavior seems excessive. She washes her hand frequently which is not such a bad thing but she is doing this as much as 10-15 times in an hour and she also showers three times a day. She wears a mask while holding her year old baby brother (okay, I’m not too concerned about this because it’s probably a good safety measure) and when she does any cleaning at all around the house. Even for common activities like using the television remote control or opening the front door, she uses disposable gloves.

I’m worried that my daughter has or is at risk of developing OCD. Can you please explain how OCD works and what are my options in terms of helping her live a normal life?

Concerned Mother

Dear Concerned Mother,

This may be a temporary reaction to her new knowledge of germs but if the behavior persists, please consult a therapist for professional diagnosis and discuss the options for treatment.

I will explain the mechanics of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and one potential treatment based on studies conducted by the University of California Los Angeles psychiatrist Jeffrey M. Schwartz.

As per Dr. Schwartz, OCD occurs when there is a problem in the region of the brain that is responsible for steering a person from one thought topic to another. In people with OCD, the caudate nucleus, also referred to as the “automatic gearshift” of the brain, gets jammed.

Before the caudate nucleus gets the signal to move on, however, there are a few other things that happen:

  1. The orbital frontal cortex detects a problem. The problem can be anything that is out of the ordinary. In your daughter’s case, it’s the existence of germs in anything that she might breathe in or touch.
  2. The orbital frontal cortex sends a message to the cingulate gyrus. The cingulate gyrus is the panic center. It triggers physical reactions in the body to perform actions to alleviate the anxiety caused by the “problem”, i.e., washing to eliminate germs.
  3. Once the person corrects the problem (e.g., by washing hands), the caudate nucleus is activated and moves the brain to a different thought. At this point, the orbital frontal cortex (1) and the cingulate gyrus (2) return to their normal state and the problem detection is inactivated since it’s no longer a concern.


ocd chartOCD

In someone with OCD, step #3 does not occur so steps #1 and #2 continue to occur in an infinite loop. In a non-OCD brain, all three steps occur and the brain’s organs return to their normal state.

Dr. Schwartz has developed a system which helps an OCD patient to break out of the infinite loop by causing step #3 to occur. His treatment encourages the caudate nucleus to move the person onto a different thought so that they break out of the compulsive cycle. His cure uses the theory of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to weaken old neural circuits and develop new ones. It is similar to un-learning a behavior and learning a new one. In this case, the behavior applies to the neural synapses in the brain, that is, the brain circuitry forgets an old pattern of behavior and learns a new one.

The way that the treatment works is this:

  1. The patient is taught to become more aware of her OCD behavior such that when it happens, she can identify it as such. In your daughter’s case, if she gets the urge to wash her hands without any reason to do so, she can identify it as OCD behavior.
  2. Once the patient acknowledges that there is no real problem but an OCD reaction, she consciously tries to avoid her normal panic-avoidance reaction, and switches to a task that gives her pleasure. This may be difficult for some patients at first and may create anxiety. Patients use medication or yoga or other methodologies to mange this anxiety.  Perhaps you can try this with your daughter if you feel that she might be ready to talk about her problem. If this forced change in behavior causes panic, she can try some anxiety releasing techniques likes walking or listening to music, or mediation. Any of these techniques will also fulfill the role of the next step, step c.
  3. When the patient switches to a pleasant task, her brain secretes chemicals to reward her behavior. This reinforces the new behavior and it eventually becomes much easier for patients to practice this auto-switch and cause a mental gearshift.

As the patient repeats these steps, new connection form between the brain synapses and the old ones weaken and the brain does not get stuck in the infinite loops of steps 1-2.

In many ways, the concept of neuroplasticity is similar to unlearning bad habits and learning new ones, just a new spin on the concept of practice makes perfect. Neuroplasticity is not just about unlearning but it’s also about learning, i.e., creating new neural circuits. Thus it can be used to not just cure problems but also to learn new concepts regardless of the age of the brain.

It is possible that your daughter is already aware of her compulsive behavior. If not, I hope you are able to make her aware of her issues by pointing out the behavioral examples that you have given to me. Once she acknowledges her problem, you can show her this column to help her understand what is happening in her mind and one possible solution. Ultimately, however, a diagnosis and treatment should occur under the care of a professional therapist.

Dr. Neurostein


This monthly column is published in magazine. Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at

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. Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Penguin Group.

Red vs. Blue


topic politics
region amygdala, ACC


“…My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet – because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future. And in this election you can do something about it,” said Barack Obama. On the contrary, Mitt Romney said, “I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet.”

President Obama and Governor Romney’s views represent those of their constituency. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 70% of Democrats “Worry a great deal / fair amount” about climate change, as opposed to only 31% of Republicans. This difference in the Democratic and Republican belief systems can have significant policy impacts regarding climate change.

From a scientific perspective, some of the general differences between Democrats/liberals and Republicans/conservatives can be observed in the workings of the brain. Much of the neuroscience research, however, that has been done in this area is inconclusive, and the results are controversial.  This article is not an exploration into the why or how these differences formed but it is an explanation of the differences that were discovered amongst the representative samples of subjects who self-identified as Republicans or Democrats or conservative or liberal.

A study conducted at University College of London in 2010 concluded that conservatives have a larger amygdala than liberals. The amygdala is responsible for emotional reactions that activate the fight-or-flight response. Other parts of the brain often moderate the primitive survival instincts of the amygdala and guide human behavior.  The methods used for the study and the results are highly controversial and have not passed the scientific rigor of replication and peer review.  Furthermore, there is no scientific correlation between the size and activity of the amygdala.

There are other studies, however, which found differences that have been replicated by many scientists.  A consortium of scientists based in San Diego, discovered that when participating in risk-taking behavior, Republicans show a higher level of activity in the amygdala than Democrats. Democrats, on the other hand, show higher activity in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) when presented with the same risk-taking tasks. The ACC is involved in many functions, both cognitive and emotional, but one of its primary jobs is to resolve conflict. A study published in Nature Neuroscience also describes higher activity in the ACC when liberals made a mistake in pattern recognition. They were able to correct the mistake and improve performance at a faster pace than their conservative counterparts.

Other parts of the brain are also involved in processing information and issues on the political spectrum. As such, these differences are not sufficient to pinpoint brain dynamics.  More extensive studies are required to both understand the differences and the means for communication with brains that exhibit these differences.

For now, how do we negotiate the differences in the belief systems and find a common ground? That’s beyond the scope of this article. But, understanding some of the differences in brain structure can at least provide an insight that the differences are hardwired in the brain. There are many studies that demonstrate that brain chemistry can be changed. This means that communication and negotiation can serve a useful purpose. If Mitt Romney and President Obama cannot agree, perhaps they can find a way to talk to each other and negotiate differences with a common goal of creating a harmonious existence for all Americans.


December: neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change

January: food for thought, i.e., the affect of food on your brain

Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at and a journalism degree from Stanford University. Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at

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. Darren Schreiber, et al. Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans, Emerging Politics, 2009,  []

2. David M. Amodio et al. Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism, Nature Neuroscience, September 9, 2007.

3. Mooney, Chris. The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality. John Wiley and Sons.

4. Mitt Romney’s Climate Change Remarks On ‘Meet The Press’ Outrage Environmental Activists, Huffington Post, Sep. 10, 2012

5. Obama Counterpunches on Climate Change, New York Times, Sep 7, 2012

6. In U.S., Concerns About Global Warming Stable at Lower Level, Gallup Poll, March 14, 2011[].

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. []


Father’s Instinct

topic Nurturing
region pituitary gland, hypothalamus
chemicals oxytocin, prolactin, testosterone, vasopressin



tiny bundles
white yellow orange red
chicks being fed

The newborn pigeon chicks are being fed by their grey and black father. A few weeks ago, they were two tiny white eggs.

“They hatched!” I send a text message to my boyfriend. We take delight in this incubation-hatching-fledgling drama taking place just outside our apartment. Despite advice on the internet tpigeonhat pigeon birth cycle can turn into a nuisance, our curiosity wins and we allow the budding pigeon family to stay in the twigs nest they have built near our fire-escape stairs.

After the hatching, the father sits on the chicks to protect them as they grow. Sometime I see him feeding them but mostly he is a stoic silent dad, acting under the influence of his instincts. At night, the mother takes over the job of nurturing. Both parents’ brains are releasing the prolactin hormone which is secreted by the pituitary gland via instructions from the hypothalamus. In the case of birds, this chemical is released when the bird sits on an egg. Prolactin causes the secretion of milk in both pigeon parents thus the father is able to feed the chicks during the daytime and the mother at night. There is a decrease in the father’s testosterone level at this time also which is why he is able to shift from copulation to nurturing.


In humans, women start to secrete prolactin as the child is about to be born and continue to secrete it during the breast-feeding phase. Males, however, do not release prolactin nor do they show a reduction in testosterone production when the female is involved in child care. That is, unlike bird fathers, the human male does not decrease his sex-drive while his wife is rearing a new child.

pituitary & hypothalmusIn addition to prolactin, a woman’s hypothalamus also causes the release of oxytocin (via the pituitary gland) for the production of milk. Oxytocin is a catalyst in inducing labor so a female mammal can give birth. It is possible that birds also secrete oxytocin but more research has been done on rats and humans than on birds. Rats are often used in experiments because they are mammals, have a body and brain that is very similar to humans, and are much cheaper and easier to use for experiments than humans.

Beyond milk creation and inducing labor, the oxytocin neurotransmitter has the powerful affect of elucidating emotional bonding which results in the maternal drives required for child care. I suppose if we ever had a child, my boyfriend would probably help raise the newborn but he would not be producing oxytocin at the level that I am producing and would not feel the same level of chemical imperatives for nurturing.

Even though the human male’s brain keeps itself isolated from the nurturing drama by not releasing prolactin or extra oxytocin, there are other “potential” chemical activities that occur. In male voles, a rodent similar to a mouse, a hormone called vasopressin induces paternal care by the males. This study, however, has not been correlated to humans.

I watch the progress of the birds on my fire-escape and connect with the “maternal” instincts of the father pigeon. I do not see the mother much because it is too dark when she shows up. Since I am not pregnant, nor do I have a newborn, I do not have prolactin circulating in my system nor do I have an unusually high level of oxytocin. Oxytocin, however, is being released in my body consistently because I am in a committed romantic relationship (this chemical is not just for mothers, it is also released in humans when any bonding activities occur). I do not know for sure if the oxytocin in my body makes me feel more sympathetic to the pigeon parents but I suspect that it does. Either way, I am enjoying this pigeon child-care ritual.

Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at

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. Bridges, Robert. Neurobiology of the Parental Brain. Academic Press 2008.

2. Numan, Michael; Insel, Thomas R. The Neurobiology of Parental Behavior. Spring 2011.


Alice Lost & Found [dopamine]



topic ADHD/ADD
region frontal lobe
chemicals dopamine

The sofa would be comfortable if only it didn’t have all those books, dishes, and DVDs covering the surface. Alice sweeps everything to the floor and stretches out within the soft green leather. She plays video games for a living—that is, she earns a six figure salary as a video game tester. After a non-stop workday of twelve hours, she is exhausted, yet unable to sleep as her brain is still on fire.

After an hour of rest, she rolls off the sofa, changes into dancing clothes and is out until 3am. When she shows up at work at 10 AM the next day, she has a hangover, but she will work late into the evening and then be out again until early morning. This is a normal pattern of life forAlice, and she is fortunate to have a job that allows for it. These unhealthy patterns in her work, social life, and sleep are typical for many professionals in their 20s, but Alice is 37 years old.

Her impulsive lifestyle extends to other areas of her life. Despite a weekly maid service, her place often looks like it has been struck by a tornado. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that she buys new clothes, shoes, and jewelry almost every week and is running out of space to put them. With dwindling savings and escalating credit card debts, Alice is aware that her lifestyle is not sustainable. She is unable, however, to modify her impulsive behavior in order to improve her finances and living conditions.

From an outsider’s perspective, Alice is an attractive, successful, and energetic woman. Her friends describe her as brilliant, impulsive, restless, funny, and kind. Nonetheless, they all complain that she never shows up on time. Her ex-boyfriends would probably say that she has poor listening skills and is quick-tempered. Despite having many friends, she is unable to develop lasting and intimate connections. Consequently, she has no close friends, has a superficial relationship with her parents and siblings, and her romantic relationships do not last beyond a few months.

Alice feels that she is always in a state of perpetual overdrive, yet unsatisfied.  She likes her job and is productive, but she often misses deadlines. The late-night dancing and drinking is emotionally unfulfilling. She fills her free time with shopping sprees which provide the instant gratification she craves but which have left her in debt. She is unable to organize her apartment, and the mess makes her feel overwhelmed. She realizes that this is not the life she wants, yet she feels helpless in her ability to change her patterns of behavior.

After an unusually heavy night of partying, Alice takes three sleeping pills instead of the usual one. She wakes up in the afternoon, shows up to work at 5 PM, and almost loses her job. This is a turning point for her. She takes the first step towards a better life and finds a therapist, which leads to a surprising discovery. Alice has ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADD. Her doctor also tells her that she is very fortunate to have found a job playing video games, because that is one of the few activities where an ADHD brain is able to focus for long periods of time.

Neurobiology research has discovered that an ADHD brain is sluggish in the part of the frontal lobe that controls impulses. The primary chemical implicated in the existence of this lack of activity is dopamine. Prescription drugs like Ritalin®, Adderall®, and Dexedrine® can be used to help the brain release more dopamine. This extra dopamine helps control the impulsive behavior which often leads to the other behavior problems associated with ADHD.

Medication does not work for everyone, but it is helpful for the vast majority of people with ADHD. Some ADHD symptoms often exist in people who do not have this disorder. Therefore, it is important not to self-diagnose. A critical part of ADHD diagnosis is that this disorder causes frustrating inability to function in two or more important areas of life such as education, work, finances, and relationships. Alice has started to take a medication that works well for her, and she is learning more about the disorder. Her therapist is helping her to learn and apply time and money management skills. Alice has also joined a support group for adults with ADHD. Medication itself is not sufficient; behavioral modifications and other therapies are also recommended to manage ADHD.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a controversial subject. The medications have been overprescribed and abused, despite the possible side effects of high blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Some medical professionals doubt whether ADHD is a real disorder, even thought it has been formally recognized by the American Psychiatry Association. Thus, further research is important for understanding the neurological basis for ADHD.

As far as Alice is concerned, it is a very real disorder because her medication has started to make a significant difference in her life. She is making an effort to prioritize her work tasks, has cut down on her clubbing and shopping, and her apartment is slightly more organized than before. It will take some time to improve her anger management and listening skills but the awareness of the disorder combined with a better-functioning brain is a good starting point for her.

Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at

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. Ratey, John J. Md; Hallowell, Edward M. Md (2011-09-13). Driven to Distraction (Revised): Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder. Random House
  2. Boyle, Mary ET, Ph.D., Neuroscience of ADHD. Department of Cognitive Science UCSD.

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.

Stop, thief!


topic Anger
organ amygdala
chemicals adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin


The vibrant colors of the murals in Clarion Alley in San Francisco awaken my senses. The twilight is perfect for capturing the mood via photographs.

I finish planning a composition and am about to click when a man on a bike rides by and snatches the camera from my hand. For a few split seconds, I do not comprehend or accept what has just happened. Then I start to scream: He stole my camera! He stole my camera!

I feel violated. I have several months of photographs in that camera. My camera!

I run after him, screaming, as he turns right onto Mission Street. I realize that I have lost my photos and will not be getting them back but I am unable to accept this fact. I continue to scream. Then a strange and unexpected series of events occur.

The man who has stolen my camera comes back into the alley on foot. He holds up the camera as if he is going to give it back to me. I reach for it, unsure as to what is going on. He runs with the camera tightly held within his large hand. What happened to his bicycle, I wonder but I do not have time to consider this. He is running now in the opposite direction from Mission and towards Valencia Street. He is running towards the Mission Police Station! I doubt that he realizes this, however.

I start screaming at the top of my lungs and run after him. I am not saying anything this time. I am simply making a deep guttural sound, primitive language-independent screams of distress.

A policeman on a bike rides by me and asks what happened. He is headed from Mission to Valencia, the same direction as the thief. I tell him and he rides after the thief, who has already disappeared around the corner on Valencia. Another policeman on a bike also chases after the thief. I wonder if this might be why the thief has abandoned his bike, to perhaps find a route that does not allow a bike passage. Or, perhaps his bike is stolen also.

Then I hear sirens.

I slow down and start walking instead of running. I am out of breath and feeling calmer. A group of people walk towards me “You are lucky, they got him,” one of them says.

Why do I react with so much aggression and without any consideration for my safety?

Surprise or fear can trigger an adrenaline rush. The quantity of the adrenaline released and thus the degree of reaction is determined by chemical factors. A low quantity of the “happy” neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the brain triggers a higher degree of adrenaline production. In other words, the less happy the brain, the higher the level of adrenaline it produces.

When the thief ripped the camera from my hand, my adrenaline level probably shot up. The level of adrenaline might have been exacerbated even further by the fact that I was in an unhappy mood. I had left my apartment a few hours ago in an angry mood because I was upset with my boyfriend. This would have resulted in a depletion of dopamine and serotonin.

In a different state of mind, would I have screamed less and potentially let the thief get away? Or would I have not made the primitive guttural sounds that, in retrospect, seem to be an over-reaction to the loss of some photos, as precious as they might have been.

Low dopamine and serotonin and high adrenaline do not activate a response but only contribute to the activation. The response is activated in the limbic system specifically in the amygdala. The amygdala is one of the major organs responsible for the perception of threat and for triggering an emotional response. It can hijack the potentially rational responses from other parts of the brain and cause irrational reactions. In my case, I did not consider my own safety because I was furious that my personal space and property had been violated.

Later that day, when I am in the Police Station talking into a tape recorder and going through the story of what has happened, the police inspector asks me if I want to press charges.

“It’s wrong to steal and he should be punished. But he must have been really desperate to want to steal a camera,” my thoughts tumble out of my mouth. I decide not to press charges. Technically, it is not my decision because the district attorney will press charges anyway because the man was arrested. I did not know this at the time, however, and despite my conflict, I made a decision to not punish the thief any more than he had already been punished.

Perhaps I was being kinder because the dopamine and serotonin levels in my brain had surged back up when I found out that justice had been done and that I would get my camera back. Also, my boyfriend came to the police station and held my hand and kept me company while the inspector was talking to me. His presence might have contributed to the raised levels of the “feel good” hormones.

This is all hypothetical, of course, based on my knowledge of neuroscience and research on the neuropathy of anger. I would have had to be hooked up to an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imager) to prove my hypothesis about the actions of the amygdala and the levels of adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine in my brain. Nonetheless, it is fun to try to guess the biological triggers for my actions when confronted with a “fight or flight” situation.


Dr. Goulston, Mark,Usable Insight, The Neuroscience of Anger, Monday, April 18th, 2011,

© Copyright Leena Prasad 2011. All rights reserved.

May 2012: bi-polar

Ben has disappeared suddenly and his girlfriend Paula is feeling anxious. He has sent an email, however, to say that he is okay and will get in touch with her soon. She calls up Ben’s sister Sonia to try to understand what’s going on with him. Read more at Whose Brain Is It? column published in Synchronous Chaos magazine.

mirror mirror


topic mirror neurons
region premotor cortex


I catch a glimpse of rice and mackerel. She is holding a small piece in-between her thumb and index finger. That’s the authentic way of eating sushi, instead of using chopsticks, I think.

But something else happens in my mind also. My friend and I have just been seated at the Japanese restaurant and have not even looked at the menu. Yet I can almost taste the saba (rice and mackerel) and memories of the sour salty taste make my mouth water. I recall a class lecture from my neuroscience class about mirror neurons.

I am not in the medical profession but studied artificial intelligence as part of my computer science curriculum and later worked in the field. This led to an interest in neuroscience. I use my graduate school training as a journalist to research and explore the brain using what I learned in the introductory neuroscience class as a basic foundation for my journey.

But, this is not a story about me or about sushi. It’s about specific neurons in my brain and in yours – nerve cells that help us connect to each other’s experiences. These neurons are helping to answer questions ranging from feeling hungry while watching someone else eat to feeling the pain of another person to the excitement felt by sport audiences, to learning by watching someone do something.

When I see the saba, the occipital lobe in the back of the brain, processes the visual information. The hippocampus and other parts of the brain retrieve the memory of my own experiences with saba. When I eat the sushi, neurons in the premotor cortex, in the frontal lobe of the brain, enable me to use my fingers to pick up the sushi, bring it to my mouth, and to eat it. Every single action, from the details of the movement of my arms and fingers to the complexities of biting and chewing are handled by the premotor nerve cells.

But if I am not eating the rice and mackerel myself, how is it that my mouth waters as if I can taste the sushi?

As human beings, most of us (excluding people with autism and other brain related diseases) understand empathy. Now, neuroscientists are exploring the coding of empathy within our brain. They have discovered nerve cells which mirror the actions of other people as if we are experiencing what we see. These neurons reside in the premotor cortex along with the premotor neurons which cause motor reflexes. Mirror neurons are a special subset of the premotor neurons and they fire whether we perform an action ourselves or watch others perform the action.

Mirror neurons were discovered by researchers in Parma, Italy in 1992. The scientists had placed electrodes in the brain of a monkey to record and study nerve cell activity by amplifying the sounds made inside the brain when a neuron fires. By chance, they heard the same set of premotor neurons fire off both when the monkey was picking up a peanut and also when the monkey was just watching someone else pick up a peanut. Similar experiments were repeated in monkeys and humans by several follow-up studies conducted by the scientists at Parma and by other scientists around the world.

“I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology,” says Dr. Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran, a Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Neurosciences Graduate Program at the University of California, San Diego. In a recent TED lecture entitled “The neurons that shaped civilization” Dr. Ramachandran theorizes that a lot of human learning, and thus evolution, probably speeded up due to mirror neurons.

There are two types of mirror neurons, according to Dr. Christian Keysers, a Professor at Netherlands’ largest medical faculty, the University Medical Center in Groningen. The two types are: strictly congruent and broadly congruent. The strictly congruent neurons are activated for very specific familiar actions. So, when I watch someone eat saba or eat it myself, I’m using strictly congruent neurons. The broadly congruent neurons are activated for actions that might be unfamiliar to me. For example, if I start taking classes in auto repair, I would be using broadly congruent neurons since I do not know much about this topic.

This is an exciting discovery. I found many articles and books and videos on the topic. A lot of the current research is speculation and excitement with a smattering of data to backup the assertions. There are ongoing discussions and experiments to locate mirror neurons in other parts of the brain, in addition to those in the premotor cortex. This trendy subject has been used to explain a range of behavioral phenomena such as language learning, empathy, and lack of emotional intelligence in autism. I look forward to learning more about these neurons as scientists gather more data and develop theories on how the knowledge can be used to understand and fine-tune human behavior. For now, at least I understand why I can taste the sushi by just looking at someone else put it in her mouth.


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.


Ramachandran. Vilayanur Subramanian. Ph.D. The neurons that shaped civilization: VS Ramachandran. TED Talk, January 4, 2010

Keysers, Christian, Ph.D. The Empathic Brain. Social Brain Press, 2011

Do the dance


topic Dance
region precuneus


“Are you nervous at all?” Sanjay says.

“Excited,” Dana responds to her husband. “Yes, nervous, but with excitement.”

She is having her brain examined today. Well, not exactly examined, but observed by a method called Positron-Emission Tomography (PET scan) which is used to measure changes in cerebral blood flow as a result of brain activity.

“It’s not too late for you to take part in this also, you know.”

“No, no, I’d rather watch.”

Since her decision to participate in the study, they have been reading up on how the brain controls muscular movements.  There is a region towards the back of the brain, appropriately called the posterior parietal cortex, which takes visual information as input and translates it into motor commands. These commands travel through a pipeline of several brain regions to the primary motor cortex, a region that sends neural impulses to the spinal cord resulting in muscle contractions.

Later that afternoon, Dana dresses as if she’s going out dancing.

“Does my primary motor cortex look ready for action?”

“I don’t know but I think my posterior parietal cortex is getting activated.” Her husband winks at her.

She is wearing a flowing jade silk skirt that comes up just above her knee, a silk shirt with just the amount of cleavage that her husband likes, and pencil heels. She has been told that she should prepare for tango dancing as if she was going out to a nightclub and not to a science lab.

Dana and Sanjay have been dancing for many years now. They won an amateur tango contest last year which is what brought them the attention that had led to her participation in this experiment.

When they arrive at the place where the study is to be conducted, she looks around for a dance floor, perhaps a live band. The place looks like an office with a few desks and computers. Through an open door, she sees some large machines. The professor, Dr. D, arrives soon and explains the procedure to her.

“So, I, uh, I’ll be lying down the whole time,” she says. How can they study tango dancing if she will be lying down the entire time? She looks over at Sanjay and he looks as skeptical as she feels.

Dr. D laughs. “I know it sounds very strange.”

“I thought someone said that I will be moving my legs, I mean, I was told to dress for dancing.”

“Yes, yes, the machine is designed so that there is a surface area for moving your legs as if you are dancing. That’s the idea, to watch what’s happening in your brain as your legs move to the music.”

Dana does not look convinced. But she has committed to this, trusts the scientist, and is curious about the outcome. She follows the professor to a room with a large intimidating machine. She has seen these machines on television. People usually lie down in them with their head placed inside the machine. The only difference is that this particular machine actually has an inclined bottom surface where here legs would rest.

“That surface is for you to move your legs,” Dr. D says. “You’ll be listening to tango music through headsets.”

As Dana moves her legs in rhythm to the tango music, sensory organs in her leg muscles will pass on data to the brain’ in terms of the location and orientation of her muscles. The brain will use this information to update the motor commands that it sends back to the muscles. Scientists understand the neural mechanisms of basic motor functions. They are curious, however, to observe how these same mechanisms scale up to handle the complexity of the motions of dance.

In a study at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, scientists used PET scans to observe the brains of five male and five female tango dancers in an experiment that occurred as described for the fictional character Dana.

Once Dana is lying inside the scanner with her head immobilized, she is asked to execute the basic salida step of the Argentine tango as she hears the music through her headset. By restricting the legs to motions where the body could not actually move in space, the scientist were able to limit the study to the exact movement of the leg muscles without having to worry about the extra movements of the entire body moving from one location to another.

Sanjay is not allowed to be in the lab so he is unable to watch the results but the professor explains what he and his colleagues saw in the brains of Dana and the other participants.

“We were able to confirm a hypothesis about the parietal lobe,” he said. “That’s the area in the back part of your head.”

“That’s such a large area,” Dana says. “Was there a specific region that you were observing?”

“Yes, yes, the hypothesis is that the brain contains a representative image of the body in a specific area called the precuneus. This representation helps the precuneus to choreograph the movements of the muscles, with the help of other parts of the brain. Of course, we can’t exactly see the representation in the precuneus but we can see blood flow activity in the area with a PET scan.”

“So more blood flow means more activity?” Sanjay says.

“Yes. And the tango dancing created a high level of activity in this region.”

“What’s name of the region, again?” Dana asks.

“Precuneus. You can google it to see the location and the size.”

“But what’s the point of this study,” Sanjay says. “It’s just curiosity or does it provide some answers?’

“Well, possibly. This area is one of the least studied areas of the brain so the more we know about it, the better we can use the knowledge.”

“We were asked to do the steps with and without music. What was the reason for that?”

“Very good question. That was to subtract the affect of music on the brain and to confirm that the precuneus is still activated.”

As they are driving  home, Dana searches for precuneus on her iPhone and reads out parts of the Wikipedia definition to her husband:

The precuneus is…involved with episodic memory, visuospatial processing, reflections upon self, and aspects of consciousness.

“Precuneus,” Sanjay says. “Sounds like it’s a busy part of the brain.”

“Tango dancing will never be the same for me again.”

“Well, it will be, except now the precuneus will be helping to choreograph the dancing and also be aware of itself while you are dancing.”


Please send feedback and suggestions for future columns to Go to for links to past columns and to for Leena’s writing portfolio. Leena has a journalism degree from Stanford University.


Brown, Steven & Parsons, Lawrence M. “The Neuroscience of Dance.” Scientific American July 2008:78-83. Print.