The Myth of Multitasking!

Multitasking?! I exclaimed in exasperation to a young colleague of mine who wished to claim credit for his ability to do several things at the same time. His point was that since he was better at multitasking compared to his other colleagues at work, he deserved better increment! I told him bluntly that I never considered a multitasker to be an asset to the organization. He looked puzzled. So I took it upon myself to explain to him in some detail. Here are a few insights that I gathered on the subject over the years:

Firstly and most importantly, Scientific evidence is clearly against this practice. I am using the word Practice advisedly since many youngsters have been consciously trying to master this by constant practice. Many take pride in their ability to do several things at the same time and in fact mention this as a special skill in their resume too.  So, the question is whether multitasking( MT) increases productivity in the workplace? Not a chance. Neuro scientists have proved conclusively that it increases stress, wastes time, and therefore leads to incompetence at work. Quality of output suffers as we miss out on vital insights due to lack of adequate attention on any one task.

Our brains have evolved over millions of years to concentrate on one thing at a time. So by forcing yourself to do several things at a time, you are de-evolving your brain. Human brain is distinguished from animal brains by the presence of the so called prefrontal cortex (or PFC for short). What is the function of PFC? This is the centre of  our AWARENESS. PFC  is also known as our inner CEO. Without PFC we are no better than animals. PFC becomes active every time we engage in an important task requiring attention. If we take up 2 important tasks at the same time, PFC’s attention gets divided between the 2 tasks, resulting in unsatisfactory performance of both the tasks. Okay, just in case you are sceptical about Scientists, let us consider ancient wisdom. I am sure everyone remembers the old Nursery Rhyme, which goes like this:

Work while you work,
Play while you play,
This is the way
To be happy each day.

All that you do,
Do with your might,
Things done by half
Are never done right.

This old poem is enough proof of the fact that our ancestors indeed gave a lot of importance to the practice of  MINDFULNESS! Clearly multitasking is the opposite of concentration!

My battle against multitasking goes back to early years of my career. I clearly remember my boss instructing me long time back as follows: “You start this experiment… in the meanwhile plan another experiment….. in the meantime read up this article & write this report……and make sure that the first experiment is finished before lunch….!”.  Being hopelessly bad at multitasking, I kept wondering how on earth I would satisfy this guy! I recall telling him politely but firmly that I am bad at doing things in parallel and added, for good measure, that I can compensate for that by doing a good job of any one task at a time! Not that my boss was impressed with my honest submission! But then that is a different story!

This brings us to the question whether one should multitask at all. The answer is, of course, yes. Surprised? Let me explain. This has to do with our brain structure again. I mentioned earlier that humans are unique in the development of Prefrontal Cortex or PFC , which is the centre of awareness. There is another part of our brain which is common with animals and is known as  ‘Basal Ganglia’ and this is meant for routine, repetitive and mechanical tasks.  Therefore, the only condition in which we can attempt multitasking is when we want to combine an important task with a routine task. The former demands the active involvement of  PFC, while the latter needs just the ‘Basal Ganglia’. So the routine activity will not compete for the PFC space, which is left free for handling the task needing complete attention. So, then, what sort of  tasks  can be combined for multitasking? Here are some examples: While driving, one can listen to music but can one talk on cell phone? No way.  And, what about Home work & Texting? Sorry kids, this is not on! Why? Both tasks require your PFC time & space! How about crocheting while watching TV or listening to a discourse? My wife does it routinely and so I cannot complain!

Unfortunately, the modern day office gadgets complicate our ability to concentrate. For instance, while you are working on a report, you hear a ping on your PC alerting you to the arrival of an email, or worse still you get an sms and you are tempted to Text back. To avoid precisely this kind of distraction, I have reconfigured my office to make sure that my Laptop is located at an inconvenient corner away from my work table. So it becomes easy to  take uninterrupted screen breaks whenever I am attending to an important report.  I became aware of the email menace in the office only last week when our company server crashed and remained dead for 2 complete working days. While almost everyone complained, I really enjoyed the free(d) time to catch up with technical reading. Likewise, I enjoyed absolute freedom from my cell phone for a week when I lost my Blackberry last year!

Published in: on July 13, 2013 at 10:44 pm  Comments (3)  
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Chemistry Unravels Mysteries of Human Emotions

I happened to write this on the Valentine day but somehow didn’t get to post it. This post is based on a recent research review article published in the journal Scientific American (Feb12,2013). The article reviews various scientific studies conducted on the influence of a petrochemical called Oxytocin on love or lack of it. The studies show an interesting correlation between Oxytocin levels of a person with his or her feelings of love for another. It was found that people with sufficient levels of this chemical can express their intense emotional states very effectively and transparently and this is crucial for developing romance, love, empathy etc between two individuals. Not just that. Even longevity of a relationship between two individuals is also influenced by the Oxytocin levels of the partners because it helps a great deal in conflict resolution. The study says that a person with the right level of Oxytocin is likely to take a “less hostile interpretation” of his or her partner’s acts or behaviour.

The study and the findings are very interesting. What are the implications? Can Neuroscience come to the rescue of  ‘matchmaking’, which is today purely the domain of astrologers in India and subject to emotional & mood swings in the west? I would definitely think so. One has to simply measure oxytocin levels of two individuals interested in each other. If the levels are not ‘right’, don’t expect compatibility. Doesn’t  it lead to a simple  & more reliable process of decision making ? If so, can we replace Horoscope with ‘Harmonoscope’ ? ( This is my new word for taking Harmone based decision making!). This process coupled with genetics (instead of Zodiac signs) gives one a powerful scientific way of  ‘matchmaking’. I am sure future generations will trash horoscopes and replace them with science.

Besides emotions of love, science has also come up with chemicals associated with fear, anxiety, depression, suicide tendencies etc. It is indeed a fascinating field of research, which promises cure for several psychiatric diseases.

Besides matchmaking, there is one more great practical utility of the study.  One basic question the study answers is the following: Does Oxytocin levels in our body cause happy thoughts & feelings or the positive thoughts cause increase in Oxytocin levels? Surprisingly, it was found that both are happening. That implies a virtuous cycle where good/positive thoughts generate Oxytocin, which in turn inspires mores positive thoughts. ( Technically this is called the mechanism of POSITIVE FEEDBACK LOOP). Logically, the opposite ‘vicious cycle’  is also bound to operate. That is negative thoughts should depress oxytocin levels and vice versa. Thus our happiness is indeed in our hands. It is a matter of triggering the mechanism of positive feedback loop using positive thoughts to start with.

We all have read a lot about the power of positive thinking. Now Neuroscience tells us how it works.

This leads us to the obvious question of what is the state of absolute bliss or ANANDA that our Rishis talked about? I would guess that during meditation where there is a complete absence of thoughts, the Oxytocin levels must be the highest. It will be interesting to do a study on our Yogis and find out.

Published in: on March 3, 2013 at 3:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Body – Mind Conundrum

How do you react to the following statements:
– He Smiled and that triggered his happiness
– He felt cold which led to a feeling of loneliness
– He was feeling warm an therefore felt friendly
You will rubbish such statements saying the guy is out of his mind and is simply confused between the cause and the effect. Our conventional wisdom clearly establishes supremacy of the Mind over our Body. Right? We are all taught that Mind and Mind alone controls the Body – that is, first the mind feels the emotion and then it is transmitted to the body which is shown up as the corresponding movement or gesture. But consider the following recent astonishing findings from Neurology on how our Body influences the Mind:
In a recent paper published in the famous American Journal NEW SCIENTIST(15 October2011), it has been claimed that our entire body is actively involved in the thinking process. Mind no more enjoys the monopoly of thinking! It is influenced in many ways by the body. The mind is constantly receiving information from the body. And this information surely does influence the way the mind processes the information.
For instance, does happiness cause a smile or the other way around? Studies show that the physical sensation of smiling triggers a happy feeling! Thus it seems that physical sensations are closely associated with emotions. There are more examples. When we feel cold, it seems, we feel lonely or alternatively our bodily warmth is linked to a feeling of friendliness. There are even more bizarre findings – Mathematical thinking is affected by our posture. For example, a study shows that when people are asked to think of random numbers, the guys who look down and to the left are more likely to come up with smaller numbers, while the guys who look up and to the right think of big numbers. In another study, it appears that those who were encouraged to indulge in hand gestures understood difficult explanations better in comparison to those who didn’t make any gestures.

Here are a few more interesting and useful body-mind correlations:
A bursting bladder was found to improve your will power and resolve. So before taking an important decision next time drink lots of water and experiment with putting off the visit to bathroom for a few hours. In fact walking backwards or tensing your muscles also gave similar results on will power and resolve. And what will make you quite persistent on the task on hand? The answer is, as you might have guessed, folding your hand. Mind you, these are well experimented and researched correlations.

Among the reported Body/Mind correlations, this one tops’em all and I bet you will love it! The studies say that people solved puzzles 10% faster when lying down flat compared with standing! The reasons are not far to seek. Supine position is the most relaxing and stress free state in which creative juices would flow freely. In the light of this evidence, if you can’t convince your boss to provide you with a relaxing bed in the office to enhance your creativity, you may, alternatively, try a more mundane posture of stretching your left arm out in front or bending your arm at the elbow, which also apparently has the same positive effect on creativity.

So, now the scientific verdict is out on how meaningful and significant are one’s bodily movements. Interestingly, in the Hindu tradition, there is not a single ritual without hand or body movement. I am sure all these movements have significance which none of us understand now. Perhaps some Indian scientist may get motivated to take up a research project on this subject after seeing this NEW SCIENTIST article.

Published in: on March 4, 2012 at 1:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Learning Communication Skills from Our Cells

Thanks to the internet and cell phone revolution human beings are all well connected. But are we communicating well with each other in spite of the great connectivity? I am afraid the answer is a big NO. In this context we have a lot to learn from our ‘cells’ on the art of communication. I will cite two recent research studies in support. One study published in a February(2011) issue of NATURE talks about molecular mail between bacterial cells. These cells apparently communicate with each other by exchange of protein molecules through NANO-BRIDGES. Can you imagine what they communicate on? They essentially share information on bacterial resistance. Now you see how they help each other to fight against man made antibiotics forcing us to invent newer generations of antibiotics. The nature and content of communication is so critical for their survival and perpetuation against our powerful antibiotics.

More recent research in microbilogy has revealed that our(human) cells too are constantly chattering. The chattering is so continuous that it can almost be described as Cacophony. But a closer look at their chatter has revealed that they are indeed excellent in communicating with each other. They don’t indulge in idle gossip like us. To quote a recent report – “…Cells have the power to “talk” to one another, sending signals through their membranes in order to “discuss” what kind of cell they will ultimately become ― whether a neuron or a hair, bone, or muscle….. cells know when to transmit signals ― and they know when it’s time to shut up………. like a well-run business meeting.
In one state, a cell can send a message and not receive, and in the other it receives and cannot send. They can talk or listen, but they cannot do both at the same time,says Dr. Sprinzak. He compares this communications system to a walkie talkie, in which only one user may be “on the air” at a time”.
This breakthrough in understanding cell communication system can lead to the development of cancer drugs. How? Scientists can now eavesdrop on the communication between the cells and specifically develop drugs to target undesirable transactions and potentially stop the uncontrollable proliferation of cancer cells.

I like the part about ” the cells know when to talk and when to shut up” and they can either talk or listen but not do BOTH at the same time”.
Isn’t this one of the great failings of human beings which often lands them in trouble? Our corporate world spends lots of money on communication workshops to hone communication skills to develop these very skills which our cells have long mastered.

Published in: on September 18, 2011 at 11:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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Mathematics of Metabolism and Life Expectancy

Size does matter. It matters especially when it comes to the question of life expectancy of various species.This was the profound finding of the Swiss scientist Max Kleiber way back in early1930s. His initial research was focused on cattle. He measured the impact of size on their metabolic rate. Measurement of metabolic rate had good practical value for the cattle industry because it allowed the prediction of food needed for the livestock,which in turn enabled farmers to predict the amount of meat that could be produced after their slaughter. Kleiber found a mathematical correlation between size and metabolic rate of various species of cattle and this encouraged him to study a diverse variety of creatures including humans. Although scientists intuitively knew for a long time that as life gets bigger it slows down , Kleiber was the first scientist to find a mathematical relationship. For instance,flies lived for hours or days while elephants lasted for over half centuries. Basically scientists realized that smaller creatures pumped blood faster than the bigger ones.

Kleiber found that size and life expectancy followed a mathematical relationship which is technically known as ‘negative quarter power scaling’. What does it mean in actual terms? It is better illustrated with an example. Let us,for instance, compare a cow & a woodchuck. A cow is roughly 1000 times heavier than a woodchuck. Applying the mathematical relationship,the square root of 1000 is 31 and the square root of 31 is 5.5. The ‘negative quarter power scaling’ when applied to these two creatures implies that on an average a cow will live 5.5 times longer than a woodchuck and will have a heartbeat rate which is 5.5 times slower than the latter. Indeed this estimate of comparative life span is found to be correct. In fact Kleiber’s Law could be applied to all kinds of species – rats,rodents,pigeons,dogs,even bacteria and plants.
George Johnson , a well known science writer of recent times wrote in one of his books that a nice consequence of the so called KLEIBER’s law is that the number of heart beats per life time tends to be stable(constant) from species to species. Bigger animals just take longer to use up their quota.

As I reflected on the Kleiber’s law,it dawned on me that it has another profound significance for us humans. Let us assume that each one of us is programmed to last for ‘X’ number of heart beats during our life span. Then it pays to use up that quota rather slowly. How can one do it? Simple. Our ancestors in India have taught us a great technique – YOGA & MEDITATION. It is proven scientifically that during meditation our metabolic rate and heart rate slow down tremendously. And consequently,this will contribute towards longer life span. In fact that is what our ancient ‘rishis’ had practiced through penance and austerities which enabled them to live for hundreds and thousands of years!

Published in: on April 17, 2011 at 8:56 am  Leave a Comment  
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Neurological process for superior emotional intelligence

“Forgive them, for, they know not what they do” – these are the famous words of Jesus from the Cross asking for forgiveness for those who crucified him. Of course this is also his plea for forgiveness for the entire humanity. Majority of us are in the same state of being UNAWARE of what we are doing to various degrees. And this is the origin of conditioning / addictions / habits etc and the consequent miseries.
I must caution at the outset that neurology is not going to offer any magical formula or a short cut for getting rid of our addictions. It only makes us aware of certain processes and possibilities. If being unaware is the origin of addictions, then, obviously the opposite state of being aware should lead to freeing ourselves of addictions. Right? And as I had mentioned in previous posts, the centre of awareness lies in our Frontal lobe or more precisely Prefrontal Cortex of our Frontal Lobe. On the other hand , the centre where activities take place without our awareness is our Midbrain. Psychologists refer to these two centres as Conscious self and the Subconscious self respectively. Let us now examine the neurological processes involved in de-addiction.
As I mentioned in the previous post the neurological process of mental conditioning involves first the conscious part of our brain learning new ideas or thoughts and then copying the same onto the subconscious part of our brain, governed by our midbrain. Once this process is complete,the new idea or thought becomes a mental conditioning, which gets recalled instantaneously without any effort whatsoever on the part of our conscious brain. Now the question is how do we get rid of such acquired conditionings. It is the reverse process. That is , we need to first bring the deep rooted conditioning out into our conscious brain from the midbrain where it is residing. This process involves accessing our subconscious and making it conscious. In the second step , we need to throw it out consciously from our system , while simultaneously replacing the same with agreeable / positive thoughts or ideas or sentiments. This involves repeated mental rehearsals. The most difficult and the trickiest part of the whole process is accessing our subconscious. There is evidence to show that this can be done during meditative state (when the brain is in the so called ‘theta’ state’).
The neurological process involves the following steps:
Subconscious negative emotions / conditioning —> Conscious negative emotion —>Conscious modification of negative to positive emotion —> Transplanting the new positive emotion to Subconscious brain.

Let me try to illustrate the above process with a specific example. Let us suppose that we want to genuinely get rid of our addiction to , say , our unruly behaviour caused by anger and jealousy. How do we tackle this? First of all we need to understand that this is our subconscious behaviour in the sense that in spite of our best intentions and resolve at the conscious level to behave in a normal way , we succumb to different situations in a spontaneous manner resulting in angry outburst. Why is it spontaneous and uncontrollable? Because its root cause lies at the subconscious part of the brain which in not in control of our Conscious brain. Then what do we need to do to access the subconscious? Go into deep meditation wherein the conscious brain becomes quiet and almost merges into the subconscious – that is,we become conscious of our subconscious thought patterns. Under those conditions it would be possible to modify the pattern of thoughts into positive ones. Mental rehearsal could be the key in achieving this modification. For instance,we could visualize ourselves alternately in anger and in peace in response to a given situation. When we watch these contrasting responses to a given situation with genuine awareness , we would instantaneously see how miserable we look when we are angry and agitated. The contrasting picture of feeling great when we visualize ourselves responding in a peaceful manner to the same situation would instantly compel us to change ourselves for the better. Repeated mental rehearsals, putting into actual practice what we had visualized mentally and copying the same into our subconscious behaviour would ensure that we reverse our behaviour pattern to the positive.

In other words, once we access the subconscious, we apply the principle of THINKING – DOING – BEING to change ourselves. Neurologically,it is all about interplay between the Conscious brain controlled by FRONTAL LOBE and the Subconscious brain controlled by MIDBRAIN.
‘THINKING’ refers to repeated mental rehearsals, ‘DOING’ is actually practicing the chosen behaviour and ‘BEING’ involves a process by which the newly practiced bahavioral pattern gets integrated into our personality. That is, the new positive behaviour pattern would show up without any effort since it has become part of our Subconscious system.

Published in: on March 20, 2011 at 10:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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Choose your area of Expertise!

We all have come across experts of various kinds in our lives. One could be an expert in say Finance , medicine, chemistry , cooking or whatever else one chooses. What does it mean to be an expert? It obviously means that one is capable of analysing any complex issue in his area and provide answers without much effort. Then the question arises as to how does one acquire expertise. Before we explore this question further I must add that most of us are indeed capable of becoming experts in some field or the other provided we choose to become one. In fact aren’t we already experts in our own right? Some of us are experts in getting angry – they get angry at the slightest irritation. Some are good at getting depressed or frustrated easily, or feeling jealous at other’s successes. Don’t get me wrong. I am not being sarcastic. It takes as much effort to become an expert in a professional field as it takes to become addicted to negative emotions. I mean the neurological process of becoming an expert is more or less similar in both cases. Let me elaborate this below in simple terms:

According to neurologists there are three distinct steps to become an expert. They are THINKING – DOING – BEING. In the first step we are simply making a mental image of what we want to become. In the second step we are actually taking steps like learning and consciously implementing whatever is required to be done. In the third stage, through constant practice of what we have learned , we virtually BECOME THAT. We are familiar with this process in our formal education system. The same phenomenon applies to learning music or dance. One might ask what is new about all this. What is new is the neurological basis for the whole phenomenon. Let us look at each step very briefly. First two steps involve activating our Conscious part of our brain and its related neuron circuitry.These steps involve the active involvement of our FRONTAL LOBE (more specifically Prefrontal cortex). By repeated mental rehearsal and practice , the learning process becomes complete. That is to say, we become CONSCIOUSLY skillful (Note the emphasis on the word Conscious). In the final step of BECOMING THAT, we activate and transfer our skill to the Subconscious part of our brain – the midbrain,which is responsible for performing actions automatically and voluntarily. That is when the skill becomes a SUBCONSCIOUS skill. Once the skill is subconscious,we perform it automatically without intervention from our conscious brain. It is like cycling,jogging, athletic sports etc.
In other words a skill is first acquired consciously and only when that becomes subconscious does it make a transition to qualify as an expertise. The neurological process of becoming an expert is the same whether it is expertise in music or an expertise in expressing negative emotions like anger, jealousy,depression etc. Therefore, it is entirely up to us to choose our area of expertise.

Now the next most important question is what if we want to get rid of our already acquired addictions to negative emotions. As you would expect , the neurological process for deaddiction is just the opposite of acquiring addictions or expertise.
I think I should deal with this important and valuable process in a separate post.

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 12:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Willingness to learn & experiment – neurologically speaking

In my previous post I talked about a friend of mine whom I complimented as a brave man (please see my previous post). Let us try to understand what we mean by brave. It simply means that the guy is willing to take risks, learn and experiment at all times instead of following a beaten track. What is the opposite of this word Brave? In my opinion it is NOT someone who is cowardly. It is someone who is conservative, fearing the unknown, lethargic and of course unwilling to learn and experience new things.

Let us now explore what it means to be brave neurologically. We have already seen in an earlier post that midbrain is the part of our brain which is responsible for our subconscious mind and therefore for addictive behaviour. There is another very important part of our brain which is referred to as FRONTAL LOBE. As the name suggests it is located in the front portion of our head just behind our forehead. Why is it important? Because of several reasons: first and foremost it is the main hub which is connected to all other parts of the brain. In a way it functions as the CEO of a company. This is what gives each one of us our identity. It is the seat of awareness. It takes all decisions and instructs the subconscious brain whenever it is warranted. But it also delegates,meaning that once a task becomes repetitive in nature, it does not interfere. In other words, new tasks are handled by Frontal Lobe while routine tasks are delegated to midbrain or the subconscious part of our brain. By virtue of its role as the CEO, our ‘Frontal lobe’ may be deemed to have tremendous power and influence over what we want to be. It is the seat of our Free will and can , in that sense , change our fate. How much one achieves in life has a lot to do with the extent to which one uses the ‘Frontal Lobe’ relative to ‘midbrain’.

Consider the following trivial example. Let us say we are on a holiday with our family to a hill station. The ‘frontal lobe’ which is the Explorer in us would urge us to look for new experiences like, for instance, trekking. Responding to the ‘frontal lobe’, we might even set out trekking. However, even as we enjoy the new experiences, our midbrain would be constantly looking out for any signs of danger on the way. This is because midbrain is programmed to act in survival mode, being the subconscious part of our brain. And at the first sight of a road block in the form of a rough terrain or enveloping darkness, our midbrain would react instinctively and would stop us from continuing with our journey.The fear of the unknown would grip us and we would soon start returning.

In the above example, when we decided to explore, it was our ‘front lobe’ which was at work and when we dissuaded ourselves from going ahead, our ‘frontal lobe’ had abdicated its responsibility and the midbrain had taken over completely.

We can see a similar phenomenon in corporate life too. Most of the unsuccessful companies generally get stuck up in a similar syndrome whenever they consider expansion or diversification. They would start a debate and would even decide on certain areas for new diversification after marshalling all facts but would chicken out even if one negative sentiment or factor crops up. They would rather remain in their familiar and predictable comfort zone than experiment with a new idea.
Being conservative, maintainig status quo – these are the descriptions that come to our mind to describe people who are not capable of taking risks in life. These are the people who let the midbrain take over their life and completely underutilize the unlimited powers of our frontal lobe.

In the next post , I will discuss briefly how we could utilize our frontal lobe effectively.

(Che)mystery of addiction

We have seen in the earlier post what is addiction in neurological terms. A predictable feeling, a predictable thought and a predictable action – this is the cycle which constitutes addiction. In the whole process the Body is in the driver’s seat or does backseat driving. It is almost like the tail wagging the dog!

In this post, I will try to present the Chemical dimension to addiction. When we view addiction in chemical terms, we will be in a position to appreciate why at all people become addictive in the first place.There is a beautiful book entitled ‘Molecules of Emotion’ by Dr Pert, which describes the association of various emotional states with chemical molecules(these chemicals are technically known as NEUROPEPTIDES). Basic concepts mentioned in this post are taken from this book, but devoid of technical jargon for the sake of simplicity.

We already mentioned briefly about NEURONS and the network of Neurons in our brain in an earlier post. Our brain may be compared with electronic circuits that one finds in a TV set or a PC but it is a lot more complex than that. As in a PC,one will see a variety of networks and connections in the human brain. Just as a computer circuits(hardware)gets activated selectively depending upon the commands one gives through a software , every thought that we think activates selectively a certain network of connections in our brain. Activation here means a Chemical corresponding to a thought is transmitted across the network. (HYPOTHALUMUS is the part of the midbrain which is pretty much like a chemical factory producing a variety of chemicals depending upon our thoughts). For a given thought,let us say, a specific chemical X is produced(It is technically known as a PEPTIDE). It is transmitted to a specific receptor located on the body cell.This in turn triggers hormone generation which gives rise to a desired feeling. This is the mechanism of how a Feeling associated with a thought is experienced by the body.
As I said earlier,every thought, emotion / Feeling is associated with certain chemical molecules. It is important to remember that the chemicals are highly specific with respect to a certain thought and feeling or emotion. Thus if anger is the emotion involved,then a corresponding chemical is generated in the brain.

The question that arises is when does it become an addiction? It has all to do with the so called ‘Feel good factor’. Let us take the case of anger and see how one gets addicted. Assume that some one has made an irritating comment. The conscious brain picks it up and passes on to the midbrain(the subconscious part of the brain)which is responsible for processing the information according to its well set conditioning over a period of time. Let us say that the midbrain is preprogrammed to generate thoughts associated with anger. It is best expressed through the body language of our face. Then a chemical associated with the emotion ‘anger’ is produced by the midbrain and transmitted to the face. This will in turn trigger production of hormones resulting in expression of anger. When this happens repeatedly,the body itself would start demanding the same chemical stimuli at the slightest provocation, which will produce the same predictable experience of anger. The more the body enjoys a certain chemical stimuli,the more it gets addicted to a particular emotion.
Addiction to all other emotions like jealousy,hatred,envy,depression etc may be explained similarly . Yes,even depression is addictive. Don’t we know of some people who have to feel depressed in order to feel good?
This,in a nutshell,is the chemistry of addiction.

In the next couple of posts we will begin to explore how to reverse the whole process of addiction.

Published in: on February 20, 2011 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Addiction is …. When the Body becomes the Mind

When we talk of addiction, most of us think that it is merely limited to alcohol,drugs or at the most coffee or tea. How many of us realize that we get equally addicted to emotions such as anger,envy, jealousy,fear, anxiety and even depression. For some, it could be as simple as a love of their daily routines.
In the Corporate world too one finds different forms of work related addictions. For instance, I have known a CEO of a fairly large company who is addicted to personally getting involved in all minor details of every department to such an extent that he ends up doing only urgent jobs. This would leave very little time for important jobs related to long term future of the company. One can easily guess what would be the long term effect on the growth of the company. Likewise, often we come across lots of people in the work place who, even after being promoted, keep doing the job of a lower level position.

The question that arises is how does one handle addictions. Is it at all possible to bring sanity to our addicted Minds? Before we answer the question, we need to first examine and understand the mental processes involved in addiction. Since the answers are provided by Neuroscience,we need to understand a couple of things about our brain. Our brain has two very basic regions – one focusing on conscious behaviour and the other specializing in our subconscious aspect. The part of the brain capable of Conscious thoughts and actions is known as ‘prefrontal cortex’ while the part specializing in subconscious aspects is known as ‘Midbrain’. It is this midbrain which is essentially involved in addiction formation. (Midbrain is also responsible for all involuntary activities like digestion,maintaining the heart pulse rate,body temperature without the intervention of our conscious part of the brain. This is fairly obvious since we do not consciously give any instructions with regard to any of the above physiological functions). Midbrain may be compared to a State operating autonomously within a Federal government. But on the flip side,the same autonomy enjoyed by Midbrain is also responsible for addiction formations. Here is a brief account of how it happens:

In life we gather lots of experiences and each experience is stored in our memory through its association with a Feeling. And Feelings are generally associated with the Body. The Feeling could be positive or negative depending upon whether it is enjoyable or not. Thus over a period of time, we store in our minds a catalogue of experiences and Feelings. By the time we are well into our thirties, virtually most of our experiences and Feelings become predictable. Naturally,then, the body would not be interested in any experience with unpredictable outcome or Feeling. Given a choice, the Body would like to remain in the same comfort zone of predictability. Thus our thoughts are driven or rather governed by Feelings. Based on the feedback from the Body,our minds will entertain only those thoughts which are likely to give a predictable Feeling to the Body. Thus a Feeling will trigger a thought which in turn will generate the same Feeling over and over again. Doesn’t it sound like addiction? In other words one has created a vicious cycle between Thought and Feeling. And only our Midbrain is involved in the entire transaction.

To eloborate, let us take the case of a thought associated with anger, for instance. Let us say someone makes an irritating comment. Our conscious brain picks it up and passes it on to the midbrain to process it further. The midbrain now takes over and makes a mess of the whole thing. It will instantly pass on the impulse to the body which in turn generates a Feeling corresponding to that emotion. Our body language showing anger as an emotion could be one consequence. As I mentioned earlier, now a vicious cycle will set in between the Thought and Anger, each reinforcing the other. Why does it happen? It is entirely due to the autonomous mode of functioning of our midbrain. The conscious brain has no role whatsoever and hence has no control over the phenomenon. The body experiences a certain ‘Feel Good’ factor, meaning that it has established a certain comfort level with respect to that thought as the cause and anger as the effect over a period of time. Our comfort arises from the simple fact that the cause and the effect are predictable.

One obvious symptom of addiction is unwillingness to learn because any new learning implies that the outcome in terms of Feeling is unpredictable and hence falls outside our comfort zone. Thus the body plays safe and repeatedly demands a known thought stimuli which gives rise to a known emotion / feeling. This is the point where the Body becomes the Mind in the sense it has hijacked the mind and virtually started dictating to the mind to perpetuate the same experience. One simple example is when one is addicted to sweets,no matter how much one tries to avoid sweets, one can’t resist accepting the same when it is offered.
Likewise a guy addicted to his daily routine is quite unlikely to accept any suggestion for an outing to a new place without asking a number of questions as to what it would be like, how long it would take, would they be back for dinner, would there be a good resting place etc. In other words such people would not like to experiment anything new. For them every minute detail has to be planned and worked out in advance so that there are no surprises. There is thus no new learning. This is contrary to how young minds act. They would be ever ready to explore anything new just for the thrill of it.

In the next post I will further eloborate on addiction from the standpoint of chemicals produced by the body. Will try and keep it simple.

Published in: on February 11, 2011 at 6:06 pm  Comments (1)