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4 Ways Your Brain Keeps You Safe

✎ Written by: Denisa Cerna

✓ Fact-checked by: Kaija Sander, Ph.D.


The brain is the most complex and intricate part of the human body, and yet many of us don’t recognize just how many functions it carries out on a daily basis.


Inside your head, there are approximately sixty trillion neural connections (pathways between brain cells), and while the brain represents only 2–2.5% of the body mass, it consumes 20% of our overall energy.


It’s safe to say there is a lot going on in there.


While we often grumble about our memory when we can’t find our car keys or rub our foreheads in frustration whilst trying to solve a difficult problem, we don’t realize just how much work our brains are doing to keep us alive and safe.


Before we unpack the four ways in which our brains try to look after us, do keep in mind that the brain is an incredibly complex machine and that every task it performs is an elaborate process involving countless variables, from genetics and environmental factors to past experiences and individual differences.


Here are the 4 mechanisms through which your brain attempts to care for you.


Your Brain Tries to Protect You From Danger


Everywhere you go, you’re carrying a small smoke detector with you.


This smoke detector is your amygdala, an important brain region that’s part of the limbic system (a system responsible for many emotional and behavioral responses, including those related to survival).


As psychiatrist and researcher Bessel van der Kolk explains in his best-selling book The Body Keeps the Score, the amygdala’s function is to scan our environment for signs of potential danger.


If it does detect a threat – which can range from a growling lion to an argument in a bar or an email from your manager – it sends an immediate message down to the brain stem and to the hypothalamus (an organ in charge of hormones and the autonomic nervous system).


The result is a full-body fight-or-flight response, which manifests as an increased heart rate and blood pressure, a release of adrenaline, more blood flow to active muscles, improved muscle strength, and heightened mental activity, just to name a few.


Before all that occurs, however, the brain’s frontal lobes – what van der Kolk refers to as our “watchtower” – help us rationally determine whether our amygdala’s perception of threat is accurate to the situation at hand and if our bodies should turn off the “smoke alarm” and carry on.


In simple terms, your amygdala warns you that the email from your manager may threaten your livelihood, and your frontal lobes remind you that it is, after all, just an email. As a result, your body doesn’t go into a full-on stress response.


Unfortunately, the brain’s smoke detector and watchtower can also malfunction. In the case of PTSD, for example, there is a heightened sensitivity in the amygdala while the frontal lobes don’t function properly, which means we may perceive ordinary situations as extremely dangerous and struggle to calm down.


However, the brain’s purpose here is clear – it wants to keep you safe.


Your Brain Can Help You Evolve Throughout Your Life



The pathways between them aren’t set in stone, however. Thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change over time, the connections between neurons strengthen or weaken based on which paths are used more or less frequently.


For example, if you practice the violin every day, the synapses between your “violin neurons” will grow in strength; if you completely stopped speaking Spanish five years ago, the paths between your “Spanish neurons” may need a bit of maintenance before they can be used with ease again.


The same applies to our habits and thoughts.


However, this means that if we walk down a certain path often enough, the brain may choose it because it is easy and familiar, not because it is necessarily good for our well-being.


Take self-criticism, for example. If you frequently engage in negative self-talk, it becomes easier for you to do so in the future because it’s what the brain knows how to do.


As neuropsychologist and author of the best-selling book Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson PhD, explains:


“There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. Based on what we’ve learned about experience-dependent neuroplasticity, a modern version would be that the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.

 

If you keep resting your mind upon self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt.”


The good news is that it’s possible to flip the narrative. Putting active effort into embracing optimism, learning new skills, or integrating new knowledge helps us reshape our brains and create new neural pathways. The more we practice, the easier it is to walk down those paths.


What’s more, there are various tools and strategies that can help us on the journey, from meetings with mental health professionals to journaling and neurofeedback training apps.


The brain chooses what is easy and familiar, but we can actively choose what falls under “easy and familiar”. This way, you and your brain can work together as a team so that you feel safe and thrive in the confines of your mind.


Your Brain Keeps You Sharp and Healthy During Sleep


You may think that the brain does nothing much when you sleep, however, the truth is that while your mind is at rest and dreaming, your brain keeps ceaselessly working.


These are some of the ways in which it attempts to keep you healthy so that you can function optimally when awake and remain safe:

  • Toxic waste removal: The brain removes toxic waste byproducts that have accumulated throughout the day via the glymphatic system, which is the brain’s waste clearance system. These toxins include a protein called amyloid-beta which has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, research suggests that the glymphatic system may play a major role when it comes to protecting you against dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.

  • Memory consolidation: The brain consolidates your memories while you sleep, helping you learn and integrate new information and better navigate the world around you. For example, having a short nap before a study session has been shown to improve the process of encoding new memories. Going to sleep after having learned new information, such as vocabulary, is also helpful as it helps consolidate those memories into long-term storage.

  • Problem-solving: Since your memories are reactivated during the consolidation process, the brain may attempt to solve problems and gain new insights as it sorts through them while you sleep. One study has shown that 62% of participants who struggled to solve a particular challenge and then went to sleep managed to solve the problem once awake. Another group of participants that remained wakeful for the same length of time was not so successful – only 24% of participants managed to solve the challenge.


As you can see, every night, your brain carries out multiple different tasks that ensure your body remains healthy and your mind stays sharp.


Your Brain Releases Painkillers When You’re Stressed


When you stub your toe or sprain your ankle, you might find yourself frustrated with your body's vulnerability to pain. What you may not have known, however, is that your brain actually releases natural painkillers in response to injury or other kinds of stressful events.


These painkillers are called endorphins, and they’re mostly released by the pituitary gland, a part of the brain that makes and releases hormones and regulates vital body functions.

Research suggests that endorphins can be released in order to help us cope with stress. A high-stress activity, such as skydiving, may spike endorphin levels in the blood of those anxious before engaging. Endorphin increase has also been detected in patients who were about to undergo surgery.


However, it appears that long-term stress, such as preparing for academic exams, has no significant effect on endorphin release, which means that endorphins may be primarily involved in acute stress responses.


Apart from relieving pain and regulating stress levels, endorphins are also associated with pleasure – for example, they are released when eating chocolate.


Conclusion


You may not be consciously aware of it, but your brain constantly plans and executes countless tasks in order to ensure your safety. 


From looking out for potential dangers and removing toxins while you’re asleep to releasing endorphins when you’re stressed and adapting to new stimuli on a neural level, your brain looks after you in ways you may not have even realized.


Myndlift provides a personalized expert-guided brain training program that can help you achieve peak performance by improving your focus, sleep quality, spatial/motor skills, and self-control over mood. Take this 10-second quiz to check if you’re eligible to kick-start your journey for better brain health.


 

About the author:

Denisa Cerna is a non-fiction and fiction writer who's passionate about psychology, mental health, and personal development. She's always on a quest to develop a better insight into the workings of the human mind, be it via reading psychology books or combing through research papers.


About the reviewer:

Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.


 

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