Find Happiness through better brain health.


How to Feel Happy

How to Feel Happy
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Brain Chemistry: Love and Anger

Love and anger are powerful emotions, the basis of lasting social bonds and hierarchies, aggression and defense, and marriage. When neurohormones combine with thinking and behavior, we feel emotions. A brain cocktail of vasopressin, oxytocin, and dopamine can produce feelings of being in love just as surely as increased levels of cortisol and adrenalin produce the feelings of anger or rage. Like other hormones, vasopressin, oxytocin, and cortisol exert one set of physiological effects on target tissues in the body and very distinct behavioral effects in the brain. When researchers inhibit these specific hormones or block their specific hormone receptors in the brain, especially receptors in the limbic system, subjects report no feelings of love or anger. Without hormones – we have no emotions. With too many, we go ballistic. Love is just right.    

So that subjects with lowered levels of vasopressin report increased marital strife and infidelity. With low vasopressin feelings of emotional bonds slip out the door. When vasopressin receptors in the brain are entirely blocked males lose all arousal and attraction. Similarly, males who carry a variant of the vasopressin receptor produced by the “1a gene” show low vasopressin and are much less likely to stay married.

So too with oxytocin, which acts peripherally to stimulate breasts as “milk let-down factor,”  but also acts within the brain as a powerful attraction and bonding agent for both women and men. Men release oxytocin during orgasm, but only with someone they love. With women, low levels of oxytocin causes mothers to reject their young. Blocking oxytocin receptors in the brain also blocks feelings of love and emotional closeness altogether. With high levels of oxytocin, both men and women fall in love. Without oxytocin, as without vasopressin, that loving feeling falls flat.

The neuroenhancing release of vasopressin and oxytocin not only changes the way we feel and think about our partners, but these hormones create the glue that makes relationships stick. When “love is blind,” these two hormones act like cheap sunglasses and keep us “attached at the hip.”  

Couples who report “being lovestruck,” and who have volunteered to literally “have their heads examined”  show a surge of dopamine concentrations in the emotional hub of the brain, the limbic system.High levels of dopamine here can produce intense pleasure with little thought of food or sleep; low levels produce the tremors of Parkinson’s disease. Is “chemistry” important for love and anger? No, chemistry is everything.

Successful patients have learned to motivate their own healing….If we knew what their brains were doing to motivate their bodies we would have the basic unit of the healing process in our hands.

Deepak Chopra

The Treats that Train Us: Our Home-Grown Opiates

By training ourselves to release neuroenhancers we not only reward the things we do but also, we can reward our natural healing. A long list of neuro-peptides (small chains of amino acids) have been shown to be routinely manufactured and released in the brain to in response to a wide range of behaviors. So many behaviors are linked to the release of so many (80+) of these “endogenous neuroenhancers”  that we appear to be rewarding ourselves for most of what we do. We condition ourselves to biochemically anticipate certain things, and pre-reward ourselves with natural “neuroenhancers,” well before we’re finished the job. These home-grown opiates are the treats that we use to train and motivate ourselves for prolonged daily tasks that just need to get done.   

Natural neuropeptides include several opiate-like compounds and cholecystokinin (CCK) that reduce pain, enkephalins and endorphins to produce pleasure, and ACTH-like peptides that enhance learning and memory. We release these compounds discriminately, in addition to the neurotransmitter dopamine, in expectation of things we like to do as a way to ensure completion.  

So exacting and all-encompassing is subconscious expectation physiology that the mind can even power the body into mimicking the full-blown conditions of pregnancy. In 1554, the court doctor for the daughter of Henry VIII, Queen Mary I Tudor, diagnosed the first of her two false or “phantom pregnancys” (pseudocyeses). Twice, the 38-year-old Queen’s strong will to produce an heir had produced melon-sized abdomens along with complete symptoms of pregnancy – without a baby. In 2014, a woman in Canada was reported to have a phantom pregnancy involving four such growths in her abdomen: she believed she was having quintuplets. Basketball players can enlist a process called “constructive visualization.” By training themselves to imagine their free throws going through the hoop, hearing an imaginary swish, and watching an imaginary scoreboard register the point they improve their shooting percentage.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

William Henley, Invictus

Categories:   Brain Chemicals, Brain Health, Happiness, Stress

Published by

Burt Glenn

Burt Glenn

Burton Glenn is a former Biology and Chemistry Professor and world traveler. He studies and writes about the effects of aging on the body and mind, as well as his personal experiences transitioning into retirement.