Gilbert and Philomena Lawrence, who are originally from Goa, detail how touch and the emotional part of the brain can play a key role in preventing mental illness in their new book ‘Your Happy Brain: Why and How to Hug it’, finds NT BUZZ
Christine Machado I NT BUZZ
Mental illness is an increasing worry day by day, with the growing number of individuals falling prey, each passing year. From autism and related disorders in the very young to different forms of addiction among adolescents and older youth to diseases like Parkinson’s, dementia, etc, in the senior population, mental illnesses are becoming widespread issues among all age groups. Besides this, there are social problems which are not considered mental illnesses like truancy, poor school performances, high rates of divorce, etc, which also take a huge toll on the mind.
What worried Gilbert Lawrence (MD, FRCR), however, is that while there are treatments available for many of these, they usually target only the symptoms and not the root cause of the problem. After mulling over some of the problems, he, with his wife Philomena, decided to pen down a book ‘Your Happy Brain: Why and How to Hug it’, which looks at how we can lessen the chances of being a victim to these mental issues.
“All these issues may seem unrelated. Yet, they are linked by the lack of arousal of the touch receptors in the skin and the insula, the emotional center in the brain,” explains Gilbert, who although originally from Goa now lives in the USA.
In fact, Gilbert states, it is only recently that we have become familiar with the working of the emotional brain or the insula.
“It is the insula that gives us the ability to love, hate, sacrifice, share, and be loyal. In short, it is the insula that makes us human. The insula is linked to other parts of the brain, which makes it the Rosetta Stone or a key to deciphering our positive emotions (happiness) and negative emotions (stress). The latter can lead to chemical and behavioral addictions, in addition to increasing the risk for blood pressure and heart problems, suppression of the immune system, and cancer,” he says.
The insula’s work involves receiving sensory arousal (emotional touch and smell) through the posterior insula, processing the electrical impulses, and converting them to emotional feelings. This intricate relaying of messages is accomplished by the unique VEN cells which are found only in the anterior insula and a few hubs of the emotional circuit. The VEN cells take signals from physical pressure (like touch) and convert the impulses into emotions, which are then sent through the limbic system, to the hypothalamus and autonomic nervous system. From here, signals go to the various parts of the central nervous system (CNS), peripheral nervous system (PNS), and endocrine system, which together also affect the immune system.
The book points out that dysfunction in the insula leads to social disorders like emotional distancing, marital discord, etc, as well as chemical and behavioural addictions. In fact, addiction is not entirely the fault of the individual. “An individual has as much control on their addictive behaviour (related to the emotional brain) as a diabetic has control on their blood sugar levels or a hypertensive patient has on their blood pressure levels,” he says.
The secret to a healthy brain involves maintaining a ‘balanced sensory diet’, which psychologists consider is currently lacking in human behaviour. “There are many things we used to do right as individuals and society. These practices were tried and tested over generations. Now, every decade we come up with new ways of doing things – partly we do not know how it impacts our nature-designed body and brain. A good example of this is breastfeeding. Only 25 per cent of women follow the guidelines on duration of breastfeeding,” he explains.
And breastfeeding in fact plays a key role in the proper development of the insula. Most mothers prefer to begin feeding their babies from the left breast. Listening with the right ear while feeding off the mother’s left breast results in the baby’s right brain developing into the ‘emotional brain’, while the left brain expands into the dominant or ‘speech brain’.
The VEN cells increase rapidly in number during the first and second month of life, a development probably assisted by breastfeeding and mother-infant bonding. After peaking at eight months, the VENs gradually decrease in number until the child reaches the age of four, and they remain at a constant number into adulthood. But, with the changes in the way breast feeding is done now, it could have an adverse effect on the development of the emotional brain of the child.
(The book is available both as an e-book and a hard copy on the internet.)