There is a powerful way to re-program your brain that has been largely overlooked. A way to change your relationship with eating, sleep, sex and basic emotions like fear, love and aggression. While cognitive therapies can modify behavior, they are of questionable help in altering these basic drives.
Our drives are largely governed by two small primitive brain structures, the hypothalamus and the amygdala – shown in red in the drawing at right. Remarkably, these two tiny structures are respectively the size of a pea and an almond — representing less than 1% of the brain’s three pounds of neural matter. Together, they constitute the control center of the paleomammalian brain–the “limbic” brain that governs our basic urges and desires as well as our homeostatic “set points” for temperature, sleep, body fat and behavioral urges like sex drive and aggression.
You can attempt to change your behavior by conscious determination and cognitive therapies. But most attempts at intentional change are temporary and are doomed to fail in the long term because they are strongly resisted by powerful homeostatic processes encoded in our limbic brain. Modern medicine recognizes the importance of homeostatic drives, and has developed pharmaceuticals to override them with diet pills, sleeping pills and antidepressants. In fact, these medications do shift the balance of neurotransmitters and neural activity — at least in the short term. But such chemical interventions are short-sighted “crutches” that promote dependency and come with side effects. Often they exhibit a “tolerance” effect: the brain’s control system fights back and weakens the impact of the medication. To maintain the benefit, doses are increased, but this strategy may not always work.
This article will explain how the hypothalamus and amygdala contribute to the regulation of basic drives like eating, sleeping and sexuality, and how the amygdala can actually override the hypothalamus by enhancing the reward value of foods and other stimuli. (As I will explain, however, my take on “food reward” is different from that of Stephan Guyenet and other advocates of the Food Reward Hypothesis). This dual-control model can help explain anomalies such as obesity, addiction, and disordered sleep.
Finally, I will provide suggestions on effective and natural ways to re-program the hypothalamus and amygdala and change your homeostatic set points, using the principle of hormesis.