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Good Chemistry

Nobel Prize Winner Eric R. Kandel’s book, “In Search of Memory,” is the first book I read concerning the biology/physiology of memory formation and storage.  I read the book because I had experienced memory issues during a sudden and severe brain hiccup that was accompanied by regular hiccups.  Hiccups can accompany stroke in women.   I did not know that.  As it happened, I thought I was having a revelatory experience. 

I felt I should delve into my psyche seeking therapy, journaling and painting my dreams.  My efforts to decipher my memories fell short as the unfamiliar segments of my internal information highway looped into cul-de-sacs or trailed off into the dark. I settled into reading about memory itself.   I did not think that reading about how memory works would lead to memory recovery.  I simply wanted to know how consciousness worked so I could understand myself.  A diagnosis of celiac disease led me to quit eating grains and surprising to me, when my diet changed, my memory and focus improved. I shifted my attention from the more ethereal realms of thought to gut function and the mind body connection.  I read everything I could about serotonin.Hillary_Clinton

Whether we put our faith in a deity, the intellect, or only things physical, we are all chemically dependent.  We are chemical beings in a chemical world.  Scientists are just beginning to understand how chemicals, including neurotransmitters and hormones, wire or encode memory into our brains in context.  Eric Kandel states that everything that enters our minds gets there through our bodily senses.  Mind is not over matter.  Mind springs up out of matter.  If we grow a healthy mind, that good mind keeps growing with us.

Whatever our age, our basic needs are the same. Cognition functions best when we eat healthy food, sleep well, have the freedom to get up and move around.  We need the tools and the power to manage our own lives.  Stress ages us.  Aging stresses us.  As we age, our chemistry changes.

Since Hillary Clinton announced that she is seeking the presidency, I have read editorials suggesting generally that a woman of Mrs. Clinton’s age is best suited for governing because an older woman no longer experiences hormonal fluctuations.  As fortune would have it, I have also just read two chapters of “Women After All:  Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy,” by Melvin Konner, M.D.  Dr. Konner states that, today, across a “huge range of cross-cultural variation – three orders of magnitude, or a thousand-fold – it remains a robust claim:  men do the great majority of killings in every culture.” Testosterone is involved.

Testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, and androgen are all bio-chemicals that together with dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and cortisol, create the shared, and fluctuating, emotional climate in which we all live.  Yet throughout the world, most societies measure all of their members against one predominant standard and that standard involves masculinity.  Early on, physically powerful outer directed skills linked to testosterone, such as hunting and war, eclipsed the cultural significance of oxytocin driven nurturing work such as feeding the young.  Probably none of us wants others to see us as physical beings.  Still, the physical matters, and matters a lot.  Women should be respected both as nurturers of life and as individuals who participate in the larger circle of activity in the world.  Yet in the mating game, that is for sure, no game, women and men often perceive each other with chemically charged expectations.  When chemicals run thin, feelings sometimes change. We are all whole persons, multi-faceted and unique.  That saves us.

Our neurochemistry seeks to control us.

Research shows that when teenage males take risks, biology rewards them with a dopamine surge.  Some risks involve teenage girls.  The book, “Women After All” states, “The freer and more educated girls and women become, the fewer children they have; men are proven obstacles to family planning.”  Family planning generally falls on women, presenting societal and health challenges together with risks to the brain.  Hormone based oral contraceptives alter neurochemistry, affecting mood and raising stroke risk, while pregnancy itself significantly raises stroke risk.  Pregnancy is naturally stressful as neurochemicals shift and adapt, and research shows an unnaturally stressful pregnancy can adversely affect both mother and child, sometimes sending epigenetic change into the next generation.

The good news is we know these things now.   In his book, “The Upward Spiral,” Alex Korb, PhD, provides concrete neuroscientifically based suggestions for improving how we feel by getting to know how we think and perceive.

Learning is lifelong.  There are many pathways, books, and thoughts to think.

Happy May.

Debra Merryweather