Today is my last day at Elemental, which means this is the final edition of Inside Your Head in its current form. (You can read more about the transition taking place at Medium here.)
Thank you so much for reading these past six months. Knowledge and time are precious commodities; I hope that I contributed in some small way to the former and wasn’t too great of a drain on the latter. I also want to thank everyone who wrote to me in response to my prompts each week. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to reply to them all, but I promise I read and valued every single one.
There are a few things I hope you’ve taken away from reading each week (or on occasion — hey, we’re all busy!).
A quick anatomy lesson
- The prefrontal cortex is the executive center of your brain, important for self-control, complex cognition, and future planning.
- The hippocampus is where memories are converted from short-term to long-term storage. It’s also important for mood.
- The amygdala serves as the brain’s alarm system, triggering feelings of fear and stress.
- The nucleus accumbens is the brain’s reward center, activated by a bevy of pleasurable experiences, including food, drugs, money, and social contact.
A lot of neuroscience research and discoveries about what makes us human — and what sometimes malfunctions in our brains to cause mental illness — involves these regions. Know them, love them, respect them.
Your brain is changing all the time, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
Physical activity and learning new things create connections, or synapses, in the brain, while chronic stress and general malaise can cause these pathways to atrophy. Remember, your brain acts like a muscle and exercising certain regions will strengthen them, while neglecting them will result in their weakening.
Humans evolved to be highly social creatures, and many of your brain’s needs, wants, and reactions stem from that evolution.
That includes our best instincts, like love, friendship, and altruism, as well as some of our worst — groupthink, social anxiety, and even hatred of others.
Never underestimate the power of a few deep breaths to calm your brain and body.
The brain and body are connected in innumerable fascinating ways. One of them is the link between noradrenaline — a stress chemical released in the brain that can contribute to feelings of overwhelm and anxiety — and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Deep breathing lowers carbon dioxide, which in turn lowers noradrenaline and helps turn off the stress response. This was a valuable fact I learned this year that I hope can help you in future stressful situations.
Here are a few non-brain related takeaways, too (indulge me, it’s been a long year):
- Please continue to wear a mask and take Covid-19 seriously. We’re so close to getting out of this pandemic, but don’t let your guard down just yet.
- Relatedly, get a vaccine! They’re safe, they’re effective, and they’re our fastest way to get back to normal. I was overjoyed when I received my first dose the other week.
- Be kind. The world is really hard, do what you can to make it a little bit easier on yourself and others.