Live more: Happy!

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I’m Australian, and we Aussies are famous for shortening the names of everyone and everything—the names of the mascots for the Sydney Olympics were, unremarkably, Sid, Millie and Ollie.

So, in the spirit of simplicity, let me introduce you to your Limbo. It’s the nickname I’ve given to the part of your brain referred to as the limbic system. It lives in the middle of your brain, just below the part that looks like a cauliflower, which I call the Leader. Your Limbo contains several structures, all with complicated names.1 Among other things, it’s your home of happy—brain scientists refer to it as your “emotional brain”.2

Feeling is the core business and mood the main gig of your Limbo . . .

Happiness

We’ve learnt a lot about the Limbo through the work of brain researchers who love to press buttons. They began by wiring up the Limbos of cats and rats to send a tiny electrical impulse to that part of the brain. 

The researchers found that if they stimulated one part of the cat’s Limbo, the cat would begin to purr and become playful. If they continued to stimulate the Limbo, the cat would lose all interest in food. Happy and thin—sounds appealing, doesn’t it? But the researchers also found that if they moved the wires slightly and stimulated another part of the Limbo, the cat threw a hissy fit and ate anything it could get its paws on. Repetitive stimulation of the Limbo in this way caused the cat to morph into an obese, hostile fiend.3

So the rats didn’t feel left out, the researchers stimulated one part of their Limbo and gave them the ability to press a button. The researchers watched in amazement as the rats repeatedly pressed the button, even in preference to eating and drinking. If left unchecked, the rats would have eventually died from exhaustion, albeit with their paws still poised on the button.4

Feeling is the core business and mood the main gig of your Limbo, but it also has three other functions.

Memory

Have you ever met someone for the first time only to have their name vanish from your memory moments after they’ve told you? It’s more embarrassing when they clearly make a mental note of your name. This is why Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, says the sweetest sound is the sound of your own name. Remembering a person’s name communicates care.

Do you remember the name of your first boy or girlfriend? I don’t remember much about Year 3, but I do remember the name of a certain girl in my class. I liked her, and when I got to sit next to her in storytime, my heart pounded.

Your Limbo decides whether to file or forget the information with which it comes into contact. It makes this decision based on how it feels.

Strong feelings, strong memories. Little or no feelings, little or no memories.

So how do you make others feel? You’ll be remembered, or not, for it.

Motivation

Most of what we do we do for a feeling—either to avoid pain or to achieve pleasure.

This is why fear and love—two of our strongest feelings—are motivating forces. Even someone who avoids exercise would easily find the motivation to push themselves to exhaustion if they were being chased by something scary. And in his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman shows how smart people can do dumb things when feelings are involved.

Remember: feeling is the Limbo’s core business and mood its main gig. So your Limbo motivates you.

I help people adopt healthier lifestyles and what I’ve learnt from their experiences is that achieving long-term behaviour change requires more than just knowledge. The world is full of people who know what to do but don’t do what they know. Why? The answer is, they don’t feel like it. Their Limbo isn’t in the mood so their motivation levels are low. The behaviour change experts who wrote the book Change Anything, say to adopt a new behaviour for good you need to discover a way to feel positively about it.5

Strong feelings, strong motivation.

Many automatic bodily processes

I know you’re not the kind of person who exceeds the speed limit when driving a car but you probably know someone who does. If that person were to speed down the road and then suddenly hear a siren and notice a police car with flashing lights in their rear-view mirror, they would likely experience several changes within their body. Their heart would pound. Their palms would sweat. Their stomach would do flip-flops.

A strong relationship exists between our emotional state and many automatic bodily processes. I use “automatic bodily processes” because these processes occur without you having to think about them. Thinking can’t make your heart rate increase, palms sweat and stomach lurch, unless you think about something that makes you feel, in which case your Limbo does the work.

As your Limbo has such an impact on your heart, it’s not surprising that people with higher anger scores are two-and-a-half times more likely to experience a cardiac event than those who are more placid.6 And it’s not surprising that the emotional stress of heavy traffic increases the risk of a heart attack in the following hour by a factor of three.7 And those butterflies that take flight in your stomach during anxious moments? Scientists are discovering an intimate connection between the brain and the gut. Seventy per cent of your immune system is distributed around your gut8 so it’s not surprising that an upset gut can negatively influence your health.

Why do happiness and health promote and complement the other? Because the Limbo is intimately involved in both.

How you feel effects how you heal.

Looking after your Limbo

Happiness. Memory. Motivation. Many automatic bodily processes. Hmmm. I hope this is the sound you’re making as you consider how important it is to look after your Limbo. After all, it’s your body’s emotional hub. Live more happy and it’s likely you’ll live longer.

1. There’s some debate among brain scientists about what structures make up the limbic system. I’ll assume the system includes the parrahippocampal gyrus, cingulate gyrus, amygdala, hippocampus, septal nuclei, hypothalamus, olfactory system, sensory association corticies and portions of the thalmus. So glad we cleared that up!

2. Clark et al. (2010). The Brain and Behaviour. Cambridge Press: Cambridge.

3. MacLean P & Delgado J. (1953). Electrical and chemical stimulation of the frontotemporal portion of the limbic system in the waking animal. Electroencephalograph Clinical Neurophysiology. 5(1):91-100.

4. Olds, J., Milner, P. (1954). Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain. The Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. 47:419–427.

5. Patterson et al. (2011). Change Anything. Piatkus: London.

6. Williams et al. (2000). Anger Proneness Predicts Coronary Heart Disease Risk: Prospective Analysis From the Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities (ARIC) Study, Circulation. 101:2034-2039.

7. Peters et al. (2004). Exposure to traffic and the onset of myocardial infarction. New England Journal of Medicine. 351(17):1721-1730.

8. Mayer, E. (2011). Gut feelings: the emerging biology of gut–brain communication. Nature Reviews. 12, 453-466.


Dr Darren Morton is a senior lecturer in health and exercise science and lead researcher in the Lifestyle Research Centre at Avondale College of Higher Education. He is also author of the book, Live More: Happy!, which will be published soon.

Avondale College of Higher Education Offering next Sabbath (June 11) supports the Lifestyle Research Centre as it continues to lead in the study of lifestyle medicine and grows its contribution to the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s comprehensive health strategy. Giving to the offering will: offer seed money to Pacific islanders to begin postgraduate research in lifestyle medicine at Avondale; and support two of the centre’s projects—Lifestyle Intervention and Infection Prevention. Your offering will improve wellbeing by reducing the burden of chronic disease and reducing the impact of preventable infections. And it will empower those with influence to return with this message to their communities, many of which are now having to meet the challenge of treating chronic lifestyle medical issues.