A conversation with my son this Monday morning as I drove him to school:
Him: Anything going on tonight?
Me: Nope, just the usual.
Him: Well, there is football.
Me: O that’s right – who’s playing?
Him: The Redskins & the Eagles.
Him: Mom? I think you mean RG3.
Right. My brain, having grown up with the Star Wars franchise and not NFL football, defaults to what is most familiar – R2D2, the name of the adorable sidekick, is burned into my neural pathways much deeper than the name of the Washington DC football team’s quarterback. Neurons have run along that R2D2 road hundreds of times more over the years.
Similarly, a conversation with the discharge doctor following BH 3 (brain hemorrhage 3)
Me: So, you’re sending me home with a prescription for lots of oxytocin, right?
Him: Huh? I think you mean oxycontin.
Me: Right. That’s what I meant.
“Oxytocin” is much more familiar to me, given all the reading about the brain I’ve done, than “oxycontin,” as until now I haven’t needed high end pain relief. So in grasping for the right word, my brain hit the pathway most familiar to it – Asking for oxytocin when I meant oxycontin.
Although a nice dose of oxytocin would have been good, too. Oxycontin is the pain relief opiod that is commonly abused and highly addictive. Oxytocin is the hormone most commonly known for its labor, delivery, and milk producing qualities in new mothers, but it is also the “feel good” hormone that floods our brains as we stop to pet our dogs when they exuberantly greet us at the door. It shows up when we hang out with friends, when we’re hugging, when we’re holding a baby. It’s been called the “tend and befriend” hormone, and it makes us feel good, and probably has physical pain-reducing properties along with psychic pain alleviation. (Another interesting point: Infanticide by mothers happens significantly MORE before their milk comes in. Once that milk starts up, so does oxytocin, helping mother and baby bond.)
But there’s this whole new evidence of oxytocin’s effects that really intrigues me: It inhibits aggression and irritability at the same time it promotes pro-social interactions – so we can trust one another. Low levels show up when we feel insecure, high levels help us feel confident and more tolerant. So if the neurologist slogan “what fires together” (when neurons fire at the same time) “wires together” (forms connections, stronger and stronger each time,) is true, then get out there and put yourself in some oxytocin-rich situations! Here’s an example of how we can take responsibility for the wiring of our brains: Pet a dog. Hug a friend. Hold a baby. Interact in person with someone you care about. It’s literally good for your brain.