September 27, 2013
Your Survival System Needs A Software Update

Did you know your brain has a survival system? What would you do if you walked past a tree and a Predator jumped out and snarled at you? I mean a REAL Predator!

You would probably wish that Schwarzenegger was right behind you! But really, thanks to your survival system in your brain, you would instantly freeze for a slight moment. After quickly assessing the situation you would either flee or stay and fight. This is the fight or flight response we all have heard of. Freezing is part of that response as well, but we never hear of that one. Anyways, our survival system evolved with us in a very harsh environment. It allowed us to survive predators and the environment, and it motivated us to find food, shelter, and companionship. Last week I posted a quick read about the nucleus accumbens (NA, it is part of your survival system) and how serotonin and dopamine affect your cravings. This week we are going to step back and look at the bigger picture. Get ready to chat about instincts, reflexes, and survival… in a culture where they no longer apply.

The environment we live in today is much different than the one humans evolved in. There is food on every corner, there are no threats of predators waiting to eat you, and you probably don’t have an issue with finding shelter. Our brains have not adapted to handle the sedentary, isolated, indoor, sleep-deprived, fast food laden, stressed out pace of 21st century life. Ancient brain programs are acting like you are still a cave man. Your caveman brain wants you to survive. It reacts to stressors and potential threats even if those stressors and threats are different than what our ancestors dealt with. Let’s simplify what the survival system does.

1.  It helps you assess threats and finds rewards

2. It signals you with pain when you should avoid something

3. It signals you with reward when you do something beneficial for survival

Pain is an important teacher. Will you ever put your hand on a hot stove-top again? We experience pain in a number of ways: stress, anxiety, worry, hunger, disappointment, physical pain, etc. Your brain wants to avoid pain at all costs. This is why you don’t do certain things even if they are good for you; they usually result in a little bit of pain (effort, stress, risk.) The brain responds to two types of beings: predators and non-predators. It also understands two types of circumstances: safe and dangerous. You must know the difference to survive and pain is your teacher. Predators and dangers can lead to death, so your body signals pain. Therefore, pain that is unresolved may lead to death. Oh you are hungry? Motivated to find some food? To our ancestors this was a big deal.

No Food -> Hunger -> Starvation -> Death
Yeah… death is a big deal. So you probably want to find something to eat. Ever noticed that the hungrier you get the more you don’t care what you eat? Thank your survival system for that. Like we talked about last week, if you are hungry, dopamine increases in your NA. This motivates you to find food. If you wait, dopamine will continue to increase and your serotonin will decrease. This moves you to even more action to find food. Eventually, you lose all sight of what you should be eating and only care about the fact you ARE eating. Hunger is a pain signal. Pain is bad. Eat something. When you get hungry, your rational brain may think, “Oh jeez, I am hungry. I should go eat something.” But your survival system is saying, “You are hungry. If you don’t eat, you could starve. Starvation leads to death, and I don’t want to die so I better get something to eat right now I don’t care what it is I just need something to eat!” Your survival system does not know if you are going to die are not. It will give you the same motivating command. Your thinking brain, however, knows darn well that you will not starve to death. Even so, if you let yourself get too hungry you can feel the battle between the thinking brain and the survival system. Which one usually wins? I bet you can guess.

This part of your brain is wired to remember dangerous situations (so you can avoid them in the future) and beneficial situations (so you can move towards them in the future.) Remember the first time you had ice cream? How did it taste? How did it make you feel? Was it was mind blowing? If you have kids, think about the first time they had ice cream. How did they react? Did they consume the bowl along with the sweets?

Part of your survival system’s job is to teach you what is good and bad for your survival. Calorie dense foods were good for our ancestor’s survival. Sweet foods were safe to eat (sweet fruits were not poisonous). Fatty meats were efficient foods for obtaining calories. Salty foods were good for maintaining electrolyte balance. Your brain will help you remember these foods because they are good for your survival. The way you remember them is through that positive emotional response you get while eating them. Oh yea… Ice cream is emotional. But after your brain helps you remember that food, it moves on to find the next best thing. This is called dopamine disappointment. It is like searching for a better high, a stronger fix.

Here is a great example: You and your family go to a new restaurant. You try something called Cioppino (a seafood stew) and it blows your mind! You have never tasted anything so awesome! You leave the restaurant a happy camper and wait to come back. You have found your new favorite dish.  You are so pumped to return, so you go back the next week and quickly order the Cioppino. Your dopamine is running high at the anticipation of tasting this sweet and delicious stew. The waiter brings it out and you dig in (your dopamine is yelling at you to hurry up and taste the greatness). You grab the spoon (it smells so good), fill it up (oooo and it is warm and steaming), and bring it to your mouth (aaahhhh I can practically taste it). You can’t wait to eat! It hits your lips and... and…. Uhhh… this is not the same Cioppino I had last time. Is there a different chef tonight? It was sweeter and smoother last time. It is still good, but it is not as good as before. What gives? Dopamine disappointment. Your brain already remembered that the Cioppino is awesome. Now it needs you to move on to something greater! Something richer! Sweeter! Dang. So you add some salt to your Cioppino to try to get the same fix as you did on the first try.

Thanks to your survival system, you now remember that Cioppino and ice cream are absolutely amazing at making you feel awesome. I mean, they are calorie dense foods that are highly efficient, and you now feel emotionally connected to them. When you are hungry, your brain will search through your memory to remind you of the most efficient foods you can eat. Not only will this satisfy your hunger, these foods make you feel better (remember? By balancing your dopamine and serotonin in your NA). This effect of food is what gets us into trouble. We not only eat to satisfy hunger, but eating actually feels good. It becomes a coping mechanism for stress.

To review, when you get hungry your body signals you with pain (hunger.) This is a cue that you are going to die unless you get something to eat. But in today’s environment, food is more of an emotional buddy than a fuel source. It is used to manage stress. Speaking of….

How is your stress? Are you stressed? Can you actually describe what being stressed feels like? Probably not. It is not like a physical pain (though it is a pain signal.) It is similar to hunger, it is a physical feeling but unlike hunger which has a clear solution, stress gives you a general feeling of anxiety with no clear path to fixing it. You just know that you NEED to fix it. So how is this stress a threat response? It is a response set in motion by your survival system. Next week, we will chat about your stress and what is really causing it. And no, it is not your boss. Or your family… it is your brain.

Stay healthy, don’t let yourself go hungry, and use that rational brain. 

Written by Clark Masterson

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