Monday, October 31, 2016

The Power of Neurotransmitters

In the case described last week, we saw how releases of dopamine, epinephrine and cortisol among other neurotransmitters could result in the fight or flight response.
But something very similar, albeit much milder also happens when you experience chronic stress. Chronic stress is the kind of stress that ‘doesn’t go away’. This is not a lion but rather an impending deadline at work, wedding planning, property investment, debt, relationship problems, etc.
This triggers a very similar stress response, which results in continued changes in your body such as suppressed immune function and digestion, a certain amount of tunnel vision, dread and anxiety etc. So when you’re stressed for long periods, this negatively affects your ability to relax and to enjoy any experiences – but it also impacts negatively on your health in more ways than you might immediately expect.
Dopamine makes us more driven and focused for instance but only on the thing that is causing the stress. This reduces activity across our brain so that we are more tightly focused on specific thoughts, emotions, ideas and inputs. That’s why ‘eustress’ can actually be a good thing and make you more likely to revise for an exam. But it has also been shown in studies to make us less creative because we’re less able to let our mind explore different, diverse ideas. Likewise, stress also makes it hard for us to focus on anything other than that thing that has our attention.
What’s more, is that stress can seriously undermine your ability to impress or influence others. That’s because stress is a sign that you’re nervous or afraid. If you give of these signs in front of a competitor, then it makes you appear to be less confident and thereby sends the signal that they must be the alpha to your beta. Likewise, if you are anxious when approaching a potential mate, it suggests on an unconscious level that they must be a better potential mate than you – that they are out of your league or at least that you perceive that to be the case!
As you can see then the ability to control your stress response can be a fantastic asset and help you to focus more when you need to, to run faster and to fight harder – or just to appear completely confident and in control in stressful situations.

More Neurotransmitters and What They Do

Conversely, other neurotransmitters can be released in response to pleasure, exercise, sunlight, tiredness, darkness, excitement and more. And these all affect our mood and our ability to focus in other ways.

  • Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that we think of as the ‘happiness hormone’. This is what makes us feel content and happy and it also has a range of other roles such as suppressing pain and decreasing appetite by stimulating the production of leptin. 
  • Melatonin is the neurotransmitter that makes us sleepy! 
  • GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces activity in the brain and can thereby suppress stress and further encourage sleep. 
  • Dopamine is essentially a neurotransmitter that is related to goal-oriented behavior. It makes us more focussed and increases memory among other things. 
  • Acetylcholine is one of the principle excitatory neurotransmitters and also plays an important role in memory. 
  • Nitric Oxide is a vasodilator and helps get more blood to the brain and muscles. It also activates neurons that aren’t directly connected and thus has an important role in helping us to wake up. 
  • Testosterone is the ‘male hormone’ that is linked to aggressive thoughts and behaviors as well as drive and confidence. 
  • Estrogen is the female hormone and can have a big impact on mood. 
  • Cortisol is the ‘stress hormone’ and makes us more alert while creating feelings of dread. It’s also linked with appetite, this time making us hungrier via another hormone/neurotransmitter called ghrelin. 
  • Substance P is the neurotransmitter related to the transmission of pain. It also happens to be linked to anger according to some recent research. 
  • Oxytocin, often called the ‘love hormone’, makes us more agreeable and creates feelings of loving protection and bonding. 
  • Glutamate is another of the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitters and exists in vast quantities compared to any other neurotransmitter. 
  • Anandamide is the ‘bliss’ neurotransmitter and also appears to stimulate creative thinking.
Once again, these neurotransmitters are released in response to our experiences and thoughts. When a mother sees her child, her brain floods with oxytocin which makes her more likely to bond with the child and feel the need to connect.
When you go on a rollercoaster, your body produces epinephrine and anandamide. When you have just had a great day out, you will be filled with serotonin and feel happy and positive.
In short, your happiness, productivity, creativity, attractiveness, relationships and much more are all responsible for different quantities of these various neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters for Incredible Abilities

Certain ‘states’ can be triggered via the release of specific neurotransmitters and this can be incredibly desirable/positive in some cases.

One example is the much-studied ‘flow state’. A flow state is a term for that moment when everything seems to fall into place and you are able to perform at your very best. This results in absolute focus, heightened reactions, improved problem solving and more. It happens when you’re snowboarding for instance and the world seems to suddenly slow down, allowing you to pull off incredible moves with expert timing. It also happens when you’re so lost in your work that you forget to the toilet or even look up from the computer. And it happens when you talk to a friend all night without realizing how long the conversation has been going.
In short, this experience is what total, creative focus feels like. And chemically, it is very similar to the fight or flight response but minus the sensation of fear or dread that normally comes from that. Instead, there seems to be a release of anandamide, which enhances creative problem solving while creating that sense of exhilaration that is so addictive to adrenaline junkies. At the same time, brain scans show that the prefrontal cortex – the part associated with planning and self-doubt – appears to shut down. This is what removes our sense of time passing and allows us to stay completely fixed on the moment. It’s known as ‘temporo-hypofrontality’.
It is thought that all major athletic records were set by flow states and that most highly successful start-ups get to where they get to thanks to flow states. So imagine if you could trigger a flow state at will and thereby achieve complete focus and perfect problem solving!

The opposite of this state is what’s known as the ‘default mode network’. This is a network of brain structures that light up when we are completely lost in thought, often while our bodies carry out mundane tasks like showering. This is what allows us to explore diverse regions of our brains and find new connections between ideas – and it’s what is believed to have helped Einstein dream up special relativity while working at the patent office.
The ‘flashbulb memory’ meanwhile shows us how our brains can be capable of laying down much clearer memories during times of extreme shock, such as the moment you heard about 9/11. Likewise, ‘hysterical strength’ shows how a strong enough fight or flight response can actually increase muscle fiber recruitment to the point where women have been able to lift cars off of their children trapped underneath.
One underground movement that is interested in the idea of using neurotransmitters to accomplish more is the ‘nootropics’ movement. Nootropics are ‘smart drugs’ which tend to work by blocking certain neurotransmitters and encouraging the production of others. These can work like the film ‘Limitless’ but on a much less powerful scale – slightly increasing memory, focus or even confidence.
The problem with nootropics is that they often come with side effects, haven’t been tested in the long term and generally make it harder for us to switch mental state as we need to. It’s no good being highly focused if it means your creativity will be suppressed!
Luckily, there are other ways to encourage the production of the correct neurotransmitters to invite the mental states we want.

Next week we'll look at how healthy eating and sleep help to improve our mental health.


  1. That is so crazy what chronic stress can do to our bodies!! I love how you broke down all the helpful!

  2. The bit about stress undermining confidence is interesting and makes a lot of sense. Stress makes me jittery, and that is not a confident approach!