Amazing Amygdala

I found a bottle of perfume the other day and when I opened it I was transported immediately to the south of France, with lavender fields listing in the breeze, a soft sun high in the sky and a distinct lack of stress. For that small moment I had travelled miles.

A perfect reminder of another tiny thing to focus on this month – the amygdala – a small, almond-shaped part of the brain responsible for unconscious functions including emotion and memory. It may be small but it’s very old, sitting within the temporal lobe and firing off fast signals around the body. If you hear a bang and jump from your seat, that’s your amygdala trying to keep you safe by initiating the flight or fight response. And since it’s an unconscious reaction and so quick, it can make mistakes. (That door banging in the middle of the night was simply the wind after all, and not a malevolent ghost). 

The perfume scent rushed immediately to that region of my brain and before I could process what was happening, I had already arrived in that beautiful village in France. Then the slower mechanisms kicked in and my memory clicked into place. Unconscious and conscious systems working together to deposit me on lavender fields, even for a moment. Delicious. Scent, emotion and memory intertwined.

Isn’t the brain an incredible thing? Aren’t we beautifully made? Looking closely at our grey matter brings a real sense of awe. Surely every time we think a thought or take a step or speak a word is miraculous. 

Next time you catch a scent of perfume (or food or flowers) say a quick thank you to the tiny region of your brain that is quietly doing its thing. And then enjoy your brief moments of time travel that ensue. For my part, I’m off to France again.

Perchance to Dream

I love sleep. There’s nothing like climbing into a warm bed at the end of a long day and drifting off. I’ve always loved it. Even as a child on Christmas morning I was fairly grumpy about having to get up.

Now that the clocks have gone back our sleep patterns are coming to the fore with chronotype differences aplenty. Circadian rhythms are strong and we each fall into specific categories, usually described with helpful animal analogies. The old birds (larks and owls) have been superseded in modern sleep psychology by new creatures that describe our nocturnal habits: now we are bears, wolves, lions or dolphins.

Bears are the most common apparently, working within solar patterns and having a doze late afternoon, while the lions are up early, getting lots done and then it’s off for an early night. Dolphins account for a smaller group. These incredible creatures sleep hemispherically, one side of their brain remaining awake, and even one eye still open. Their human counterparts haven’t worked out how to do that yet but they are the insomniacs who sleep only a little, always hyper aware.

I know I’m a wolf – get up late, slink around the place being a bit useless until darkness falls and suddenly spring into action. Maybe bite, on occasion, if someone gets too close.

Since chronotype is fairly fixed (as impossible to change as the colour of your eyes) it can be challenging to share time with a different creature – a bear will struggle to understand the dolphin who simply can’t get to sleep. (Stay with me, I know the image is odd, bears swim don’t they?) And the need to remain unconscious for several hours every day is a strange species requirement anyway. Our brains are surely carrying out tasks of immense importance while we sleep: memory encoding, dreaming and everything in between.

In spite of its importance to our wellbeing, sleep is still overlooked in a modern culture that tends to reward busyness and early risers while tutting at those who sleep late and take their time. “Look”, they say, pointing at the bird with its worm, “that’s how to get on in life.” For wolves like me, who are still snoring happily away while the birds (or lions) skip around getting stuff done, it can be frustrating to be dismissed as lazy. We work hard too, it just happens to be dark at the time.

Whatever your type, or life circumstances, seek sleep – your brain will thank you.