Tweak your brain chemistry toward happiness, purpose, meaning

JILLIAN MICHAELS: There is a definite connection between the physical laws of inertia, a body in motion tends to stay in motion and the psychological components of inertia it's like when we become sedentary it's very difficult to begin moving again and to become motivated once more. And it's not just emotional, it's also physiological. Depression and feeling sedentary and feeling down and engaging once again in being hopeful, because essentially that's what motivation does require, can become a bit like a spider web. So in The Six Keys one of the major pathways we need to travel down is comprehending the connection between the state of our mind and how it very tangibly affects our bodies. When you look at something like depression or sadness or tragedy that kind of emotional stress we see that it literally changes our brain, it shrinks the size of our amygdala, our hippocampus, it shifts the ratios between gray matter and white matter, it changes our brain chemistry. And what all of these physiological changes do is essentially gear us to be more impulsive, less emotional regulation, more prone to depression and these thoughts then, of course, leading to our behaviors, which dictate the outcome of our reality.

So, as I mentioned it's a bit of a black hole so to speak so how do we turn it around? And it has to be something in my opinion that is fought on a myriad of fronts. First and foremost we need to establish a why, so we're going to look at the actual psychology of motivation. I believe it was Nietzsche who said, "If you have a why to live for you can tolerate the how." Because anything worth having, be in a healthy marriage, a thriving career, a healthy body, is going to require work and sacrifice. But work with purpose is passion; work without purpose is punishing and a lot of us already feel very punished by the rigors of our daily lives. So forming a very concrete goal, not just health, what does that even mean? How do you emotionally connect to being healthy? Somebody says well don't have that pizza tonight and don't watch How to Make a Murderer season two and you'll be healthy like that's not sexy. However, if it was hey you know what, give me 20 minutes in your living room with a quick exercise routine and get the sauce on the XY or Z meal you just ordered on the side, forgo the soda, get water instead and you're going to fit into those skinny jeans, have sex with the lights on with confidence, although I think that's greatly overrated, it's light at least 12 hours out of your day so why not open up your options? I mean walk your daughter down the aisle or look good in your wedding dress or meet your great, great grandchildren, watch humans land on Mars. I don't care what your reason is. It doesn't matter how profound it is, it doesn't matter how superficial it is, but it has to move you and you have to care because that's what makes that work in order to achieve it more manageable and turns it into passion versus punishment. At the same time how do we make this concept neural plasticity work for us instead of against us? How do we change our brain chemistry and the shape and size of various parts of our brain so that we're more prone to positivity and hopefulness as opposed to nihilism? Well, things like meditation, these mind-body interventions, and for the longest time I was like I live in L.A. like I can't hear this one more time. You know what's going to stress me out? Wasting five minutes chanting in my car on my lunch hour when I have stuff to do.

But the evidence is overwhelming and we see that five minutes even of meditation, I don't care when you get it in if it's in the morning, if it's at night, if it's in your lunch hour even if you suck at it, download an app, be consistent with it and over time we see that it helps to shift the physiology of our brain so we are more geared towards happiness, purpose and meaning. And in fact when we look at it holistically, in conjunction with that ball getting rolling so now maybe you've got just enough motivation to take that first step and you're moving. So the first step at the gym, the first one is always the hardest because now that body in motion stays in motion, now you're motivated to a certain extent, you're starting to see results. The fears and concerns with breaking out of that comfort zone have abated because you already went and you did it. Maybe you're uncomfortable at the gym, you're done with feeling uncomfortable at the gym you survived it; you're ready to go back tomorrow; the world is not going to end. You're eating a little bit healthier and all of those micronutrients are gearing your brain chemistry for the better and not the worst. So each and every step in the right direction is what begets more success. So it's a holistic and a cumulative approach that's going to yield those positive results. And then of course, once you're emotionally and physically in motion it's much easier to stay in motion.

  • The body influences the mind: physical activity changes our brain chemistry.
  • More activity in the body, and therefore in the brain, reorients us toward happiness, purpose, and meaning.
  • Neuroplasticity suggests we can program ourselves to be more optimistic and hopeful.


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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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