Brain and Memory

Brain and Memory is the first part of my serialised lecture from the recent International Hypnotherapy and Psychotherapy conference.
It’s a free resource to help you and the introduction is here.
 So let’s begin with the brain and memory. Now the human brain is a remarkable thing. It represents 2% of our body weight yet uses 25% of our daily calories.
Why is the human brain is different from the brains of the other great apes?
In fact the answer is cooking. We don’t eat raw food like for example gorillas or chimpanzees, so we’re not involved in a trade-off. The trade off between the amount of neurons in our brains and our body size.  You can’t have both a big brain and a big body on raw food.
It’s impossible for us to obtain the number of calories necessary to keep our brains working from raw food. So,  we predigest our food by cooking it.  Otherwise we would simply run out of hours in the day to eat.
As humans, our brains are very neuron rich, they’ve grown that way. If  you count the nuclei in a rodent brain, you find that they are far fewer than in ours.
We have 86 billion neurons in our brains and if a rodent brain had that many neurons, it would weigh 36 kg!
We use 6 calories per billion neurons of brain every day. Gorillas are physically much larger than us but their brains are smaller. This is because of the fact that to maintain that body size, they have to sacrifice neurons.
What makes our human brain and memory unique are our cognitive abilities. We have a very dense concentration of neurons in our cerebral cortex. This is what gives us our cognitive abilities.
That rich concentration of neurons fuels our working memory.
Now what working memory does is that it interfaces between what’s going on now, our experiences – and our stored knowledge, the long-term memory.
Now this is a mix that we re all familiar with. What it goes to is meaning
and we are all aware of the fact that how we attach meaning to memory is very important That’s also true in therapy.
In physical terms that working memory is about the size of a pea. We can think of the working memory in terms of RAM, random access memory. It is for example, what allows us to listen into other people’s conversations while we’re pretending to pay attention to the person in front of us.
It always amazes me how many tips and techniques exist in the self-help books relating to making sure that you appear to be paying attention to someone. There is only however one fool-proof method of making sure that you do this and I’m going to let you in on the secret…
 and that is to actually be paying attention.
There are limits to working memory though, losing your keys for example, forgetting what you were going to say, the good news? There are also strategies to improve it.
More of those in the next installment….

How anxious brains work

How anxious brains work is an important part of the understanding of anxiety and panic. So let’s begin to understand it.

Let’s start with the anxiety response. If we can understand what’s going on, we have a useful starting point. This is another in the series of learning how anxiety works.

Triggers begin the process; we’ve all had those feelings of being in a dangerous place, even when physically we aren’t. Clients often describe this as a feeling of ‘dread’. So what happens when anxiety is triggered in this way?

The parts of your brain responsible for anxiety are the amygdala and the thalamus, the limbic system. The aim of the thalamus is to keep us safe. The thalamus scans for potential dangers around us all the time, monitoring all our senses, a little like anxiety radar.

If it detects a potential threat, rightly or wrongly, even if something that isn’t a threat is recognised as a threat, it sends a message to the amygdala.

The amygdala then does all those things that we recognise as unwelcome and unpleasant. It may raise heart rate, cause sweating, shallow breathing, and tense our muscles. We are from that point hyper-vigilant.

This is the ‘fight or flight’ response that I am sure you are familiar with; it’s a natural and useful response to dangers around us.

The problem here is that in anxious people, this process can begin at any time, sometimes even for no apparent reason. It can happen on an otherwise good day – it makes us anxious, panic and want to escape.

This trigger can be tied to danger or it could be a trigger from the past, wrongly recognised in the present, it could come from a sight, sound, smell, touch or any of our senses.

Once the thalamus has signaled the amygdala, the amygdala takes over and shuts down our rational thinking. We are left with instinctive simple reactions such as fight or flight; we are out of reason and into instinct.

Importantly, we are responding to the stimulus without choice, the amygdala is preparing the body to deal with the threat.

What is needed to combat this response are methods that reassure the amygdala so that we can regulate the body, regulate the breathing and by doing that, tell the brain that everything is alright.

By doing that we turn back on the rational part of our brain and we no longer have an anxious brain.

Stay tuned for more resources on understanding and treating the anxious brain.