Candace Pert, author of Molecules of Emotion: The Science of MindBody Medicine, is the scientist who proved that emotions are the link between the brain and the body. She says the brain is just a big bag of chemicals which are known as ‘neurotransmitters’ because they literally pass (or transmit) messages from one brain cell (neuron) to another.
Different brain chemicals do different jobs; some wake us up in the morning, others put us to sleep but the ones we like most are chemicals that reward us with great surges of energy – as can happen with a big win or an inspiring AHA moment.
Two chemicals that are probably familiar are those known as the endorphins – a group of natural pain killers that produce the well-known ‘runner’s high’ – and serotonin, the chemical thought to be implicated in depression.
Brain cells operate a bit like city-slickers – they don’t communicate directly with their neighbours – so chemical messengers are essential to making that link. Just as a smart phone needs a wifi connection, each brain cell has a docking station that can receive and read mail messages.
Pert calls these chemical connectors ‘opiate receptors’ as they are the same docking stations that certain drugs like heroin – and its derivative morphine – lock onto. This is what puts heroin in a dangerously addictive class of its own: your brain can misread the drug as an essential brain chemical and behave as if it can’t survive without it.
Hebbe’s Law tells us neurons that fire together, wire together. Brain chemicals do so by tickling the fancy of surrounding neurons setting up a chain-reaction – a bit like neuro-party-time – which livens up the neighbors and gets them going too. With plenty of repetition the cells in this chain-reaction connect which either soft-wire in a response (good or bad) or lead us to a conclusion. This is how some of those less than helpful ideas came about, such as “I’m not okay” or “I’m not good enough”.
So far we’ve only seen what happens in the space between our ears but a big part of brain functioning is to regulate and control the body. It does so through the same chemical messengers but when these occur in the body we call them ‘hormones’.
Hormones carry mission-critical information regulating 95 percent of life’s processes – such as development and growth – as well as bodily functions. Sex-hormones – testosterone, progesterone and estrogen are likely familiar – as may be cortisol, the stress hormone.
Pert concludes that emotions unite the mind and body and likens the entire system to a musical performance. The detail communicated by the numerous chemical messengers is like sheet music containing the notes, phrases, and rhythms that allow the orchestra – our body – to play as an integrated entity. The music that results is the tone we experience and call ‘feelings’ or ‘emotions’. When the music is harmonious, this is the feeling we call ‘happiness’ and it tells us lots about our wellbeing..
Pert concludes that emotions are a key element in our self-care and advises us to acknowledge our feelings including so-called bad or negative emotions such as anger, fear and grief, because all emotions are vital for survival.
She also makes the point that our habitual mood, whether good, bad, or indifferent, has little to do with our personality. If the function of the opiate receptors is the reason for the physical addiction to drugs (such as heroin), then our habitual mood is simply the one to which we are addicted.
This begs the question: why be addicted to any other mood than the one that makes us feel alive with the sound of music, happiness?