THE ANATOMIC BASIS OF HUMAN PHYSIOLOGY AND BEHAVIOR?

BRAIN ANATOMY

By Dr. David Edward Marcinko MBA CMP©

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I am not a neurologist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. But, it is well known that emotional and behavioral change involves the human nervous system. And, there are two parts of the nervous system that are especially significant for holistic financial advisor; the first is the limbic system and the second is the autonomic nervous system. 

According to Dr. C. George Boerre of Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, this is known as the emotional nervous system.

1. The Limbic System

The limbic system is a set of structures that lies on both sides of the thalamus, just under the cerebrum.  It includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and nearby areas.  It is primarily responsible for emotions, memories and recollection. 

Hypothalamus

The small hypothalamus is located just below the thalamus on both sides of the third ventricle (areas within the cerebrum filled with cerebrospinal fluid that connect to spinal fluid). It sits inside both tracts of the optic nerve, and just above the pituitary gland.

The hypothalamus is mainly concerned with homeostasis or the process of returning to some “set point.”  It works like a thermostat:  When the room gets too cold, the thermostat conveys that information to the furnace and turns it on.  As the room warms up and the temperature rises, it sends turns off the furnace.  The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating hunger, thirst, response to pain, levels of pleasure, sexual satisfaction, anger and aggressive behavior, and more.  It also regulates the functioning of the autonomic nervous system, which means it regulates functions like pulse, blood pressure, breathing, and arousal in response to emotional circumstances. In a recent discovery, the protein leptin is released by fat cells with over-eating.  The hypothalamus senses leptin levels in the bloodstream and responds by decreasing appetite.  So, it seems that some people might have a gene mutation which produces leptin, and can’t tell the hypothalamus that it is satiated.   The hypothalamus sends instructions to the rest of the body in two ways.  The first is to the autonomic nervous system.  This allows the hypothalamus to have ultimate control of things like blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, digestion, sweating, and all the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions.

The second way the hypothalamus controls things is via the pituitary gland.  It is neurally and chemically connected to the pituitary, which in turn pumps hormones called releasing factors into the bloodstream.  The pituitary is the so-called “master gland” as these hormones are vitally important in regulating growth and metabolism.

Hippocampus

The hippocampus consists of two “horns” that curve back from the amygdala.  It is important in converting things “in your mind” at the moment (short-term memory) into things that are remembered for the long run (long-term memory).  If the hippocampus is damaged, a patient cannot build new memories and lives in a strange world where everything they experience just fades away; even while older memories from the time before the damage are untouched!  Most patients who suffer from this kind of brain damage are eventually institutionalized.

Amygdala

The amygdalas are two almond-shaped masses of neurons on either side of the thalamus at the lower end of the hippocampus.  When it is stimulated electrically, animals respond with aggression.  And, if the amygdala is removed, animals get very tame and no longer respond to anger that would have caused rage before.  The animals also become indifferent to stimuli that would have otherwise have caused fear and sexual responses.

Related Anatomic Areas

Besides the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala, there are other areas in the structures near to the limbic system that are intimately connected to it:

  • The cingulate gyrus is the part of the cerebrum that lies closest to the limbic system, just above the corpus collosum.  It provides a pathway from the thalamus to the hippocampus, is responsible for focusing attention on emotionally significant events, and for associating memories to smells and to pain.
  • The ventral tegmental area of the brain stem (just below the thalamus) consists of dopamine pathways responsible for pleasure.  People with damage here tend to have difficulty getting pleasure in life, and often turn to alcohol, drugs, sweets, and gambling.
  • The basal ganglia (including the caudate nucleus, the putamen, the globus pallidus, and the substantia nigra) lie over to the sides of the limbic system, and are connected with the cortex above them.  They are responsible for repetitive behaviors, reward experiences, and focusing attention. 
  • The prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the frontal lobe which lies in front of the motor area, is also closely linked to the limbic system.  Besides apparently being involved in thinking about the future, making plans, and taking action, it also appears to be involved in the same dopamine pathways as the ventral tegmental area, and plays a part in pleasure and addiction.

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2. The Autonomic Nervous System

The second part of the nervous system to have a particularly powerful part to play in our emotional life is the autonomic nervous system. 

The autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts, which function primarily in opposition to each other.  The first is the sympathetic nervous system, which starts in the spinal cord and travels to a variety of areas of the body.  Its function appears to be preparing the body for the kinds of vigorous activities associated with “fight or flight,” that is, with running from danger or with preparing for violence.  Activation of the sympathetic nervous system has the following effects:

  • dilates the pupils and opens the eyelids,
  • stimulates the sweat glands and dilates the blood vessels in large muscles,
  • constricts the blood vessels in the rest of the body,
  • increases the heart rate and opens up the bronchial tubes of the lungs, and
  • inhibits the secretions in the digestive system.

One of its most important effects is causing the adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys) to release epinephrine (adrenalin) into the blood stream.  Epinephrine is a powerful hormone that causes various parts of the body to respond in much the same way as the sympathetic nervous system.  Being in the blood stream, it takes a bit longer to stop its effects, and may take some time to calm down again

The sympathetic nervous system also takes in information, mostly concerning pain from internal organs.  Because the nerves that carry information about organ pain often travel along the same paths that carry information about pain from more surface areas of the body, the information sometimes get confused.  This is called referred pain, and the best known example is the pain in the left shoulder and arm when having a heart attack.

The other part of the autonomic nervous system is called the parasympathetic nervoussystem.  It has its roots in the brainstem and in the spinal cord of the lower back.  Its function is to bring the body back from the emergency status that the sympathetic nervous system puts it into.

Some of the details of parasympathetic arousal include some of the following:.

  • pupil constriction and activation of the salivary glands,
  • stimulating the secretions of the stomach and activity of the intestines,
  • stimulating secretions in the lungs and constricting the bronchial tubes, and;
  • decreases heart rate.

The parasympathetic nervous system also has some sensory abilities:  It receives information about blood pressure, levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, etc.

There is actually another part of the autonomic nervous system that is not mentioned too often: the enteric nervous system.  It is a complex of nerves that regulate the activity of the stomach. 

For example, if you get sick to your stomach with a new financial advisory client – or feel nervous butterflies with your first patient encounter as a doctor- you can blame the enteric nervous system.

ASSESSMENT: Your thoughts are appreciated.

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