I Will Survive | Brain Reactions

brainscanThe brain is my focus. When someone comes to me with an issue or an area of his or her life that isn’t working the way that person wants, the first place we look is at the brain.

I want people to know how their brains work so that they can understand the choices they make. It’s not for me to judge someone’s decision, its for me to make them understand that they have choices and why they make the decisions they do.

When we understand why we make the decisions we do and how ours brains are involved in that process, we gain power over our own lives and can create change where we want it.

For example, have you ever walked into the Mall, smelled the Cinnabon® store, and your next conscious memory was wiping the sugar from your mouth? There is a REASON this happens. There is a RESAON that the Cinnabon® people make sure you can smell their delicious cinnamon rolls.

It all has to do with your ancient brain’s desire for survival. When your brain smells the intoxicating combination of melted butter, sugar and cinnamon, it releases a flow of dopamine to distract the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is the baby sitter of the brain, the voice of reason. It says things like “Whaaat???! 730 calories in a cinnamon roll?? Are you kidding me??? What about the skinny jeans??!” Ironically, it is part of the “youngest” part of the brain, but usually, it is the most mature part.

The oldest part of your brain, after the brain stem, involves the amygdala. The amygdala is associated with the fight, flight, freeze response and has kept humans alive for millennia. It helps drive some of our most basic instincts. It smells the sugary goodness wafting from the Cinnabon® store and says “YES, we must have one.”


So the dopamine gets released to confuse and distract the mature, reasonable part of the brain, and we start walking toward the oncoming sugar coma. Remember, they didn’t have Cinnabon® stores when our ancestors were running from dinosaurs.

The amygdala isn’t worried about the cost or the calories, it just wants to survive, and this scrumptious concoction will do the trick in this moment. Would it also push you to eat a celery stick? Sure. But celery doesn’t smell as good as good as the cinnamon roll, and the dopamine is already working to cloud your judgment.

The amygdala decides that you aren’t walking fast enough so it tells the body to do something and quick! The body creates a chemical reaction somewhere, and you experience a drop in blood sugar. The amygdala says “See?? I told you! We’re DYING here. Go. Get. The. Food.”

The next thing you know, you have eaten the entire 730 calorie snack with no real memory of the experience. You know you ate it because you still have the receipt in your hand and your lips are sticky.

Now, depending on your situation, you can experience a number of reactions. Some of you will feel good about the choice you made because it felt like a choice. Others of you will not be so lucky. You might be flooded with guilt and shame because part of you, really wants to wear the skinny jeans before they are out of fashion. Some of you will get angry and criticize your constant lack of good judgment and self-control. Others will stuff the experience down just as quickly as you did the cinnamon bun and pretend it never happened.

If it didn’t feel like a choice, then understanding what happens in the brain is good information. It explains why we react the way we do sometimes, and it gives us the opportunity to make a different decision if we want to the next time we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances.

It removes the need to feel guilty or self-hating because we understand that it is just a physiological response (the dopamine, amygdala, blood sugar drop) to a stimulus (evil cinnamon roll).

fight-or-flightIf we start to use emotions as information and not entities that overwhelm our lives, then we can better understand the decisions we make. That understanding gives us the power to change the situations we want to be different in our lives. We have the control.

It helps to know that the amygdala is just doing its job, helping you to survive. Now you have the choice to decide how you want to survive the next time you are overwhelmed by your environment.   Want to have a stronger prefrontal cortex? More will power? A bigger baby sitter for the amygdala? We’ll talk about that next time.


  1. Cindy
    Jan 30, 2013

    Ok, so thanks for ruining the whole cinnamon roll experience for me! It just won’t taste as good since I know my amygdala is overreacting. What a drama queen.

    Seriously, though, great post! Great info about how to outsmart myself next time!

  2. Desiree Buckner
    Jan 30, 2013

    Very interesting and enlightening. The next time I give into a food craving, I won’t be so hard on myself. Thanks for creating this blog. I think it will be very useful and enjoyable. I have never read or followed a blog in the past, but I will follow yours. Thanks for letting me know about it.

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