Your Hands! They Keep You Happy & Healthy
Which group would
you expect to report more depression: older people who had
through two World Wars and the Great Depression, or younger people born
in the middle third of the 20th century?
The answer – the younger people born in the middle third of the 20th century-
sent neuroscientist and psychologist Kelly Lambert on a search of why
this was. And in researching this whole area she stumbled upon that the
key to our health really is in our hands.
Our brains are
programmed to derive deep pleasure and satisfaction when our physical
efforts produce something tangible, visible and MEANINGFUL. It is this
last fact that is extremely important (hence, the capital letters
used). Our brains have been hardwired for this type of meaningful
action since our ancestors lived in caves and wore the latest
fur-fashion. It appears that this was Nature’s way of keeping humans
from being lazy ‘cave potatoes’ since relaxing & chilling all day
did not put meat onto the cave fire or keep the wife & kids safe.
This type of deep pleasure and satisfaction through action is called by
scientists ‘effort-driven rewards’. These provide not just a
sense of emotional well-being but also an increased feeling that we can
control our surroundings. This leads to more positive feel-good
emotions and ultimately an enhanced flexibility against mental
illnesses such as depression.
Rewards and Evolution
Effort-driven rewards are actually a clever evolutionary tool. They
motivated early humans to maintain physical activity because this was
needed to obtain the resources necessary to live – to find food,
protect themselves, and to procreate to continue the species.
Effort-driven rewards also involve complex movements coupled with
intricate thought processes. For example, imagine our ancestors
tracking a pack of wild boars through a forest. Since these animals are
vicious fighters, a successful strategy would involve the coordinated efforts of a
few hunters, requiring effective social communication and support. They
needed to be alert as they chased their game or lured it into a trap that
they had built. All their efforts were fuelled by anticipation. And
anticipating something pleasurable creates more activity in the
pleasure centre of the brain than actually achieving the goal does
(that alone is an important key to well-being!). Once they
caught their prey, our ancestors were infused by a sense of
accomplishment and satisfaction as they skinned and prepared the animal
for dinner. This is quite a different sense of achievement than heading
to the local supermarket to buy a pack of pork chops.
Hands Are Critical
From an evolutionary perspective, our hands have always been critical
to our survival because they allow us to gain control of our
environment. We tend to prefer hand
movements that our ancestors needed for survival such as those
necessary for nurturing, cleaning, cooking, grooming, building shelter
and farming. It is interesting to note that depression reported in
Amish communities is far lower than it is in the
rest of the United States. (Whether this is only due to the hardworking
hands was not reported; the Amish have a closely-knit social &
spiritual network which must undoubtedly play an important role).
Our brains are generally the same size and have all the same parts and
chemical composition as those of the earliest humans. Even though our
lifestyles have changed radically, we have kept the need for achieving
effort-driven rewards. But have our less physically oriented lifestyles
removed the complexity of movement and thought processes that lead to
more happiness? Are we robbing ourselves of certain forms of pleasure
that are critical to our mental health and well-being?
Brain Systems and
As Kelly Lambert began her search into evolutionary triggers for
depression she discovered that specific areas of the brain ‘explain’
each of the primary symptoms of depression: loss of pleasure (nucleus
accumbens), slowed motor abilities (striatum) and difficulty
concentrating (prefrontal cortex). And these areas are all connected….
The nucleus accumbens is the pleasure-reward centre in the brain and it
keeps us involved in behaviours that are important to our survival like
eating and having sex. It plays a crucial role in how the brain
functions since it determines how to respond to environmental stimuli
such as a piece of chocolate cake or a good looking man/woman in the
The nucleus accumbens is also an integrating centre in the brain. It
receives inputs and outputs from many neural areas, but in terms of
mental health and well-being it is intimately connected to three other
* the brain’s motor system (striatum)
* its emotional and learning centre (limbic system), and
* the problem solving, planning and decision making centre (prefrontal
It is this accumbens-striatum-cortical network that makes up the
effort-driven rewards circuit. It is a vitally important system that
connects movement, emotion and thinking. The motor areas that control
our movements are intimately connected to the reward centre – where we
register pleasure – and to the cortical area of our brain that controls
higher thought processes. Because of the interconnectedness of the
brain areas that control movement, emotion and thinking, doing
activities that involve a number of these components fully engages the
effort-driven rewards circuit.
The more the effort-driven rewards circuit is kept activated, the
greater the sense of psychological well-being that results. It is as if
an electrical current is coursing through the network giving a
‘humming’ feeling. When it is buzzing at top capacity, the cells in
those areas of the brain are turned on and secrete neurochemicals such
as dopamine and serotonin which are involved in generating positive
emotions. Neural connections are strengthened and reinforced, and with
this type of
‘meaningful’ activity new brain cells are produced. This last fact is
believed to be an important factor in recovering from depression.
And if this isn’t
enough, there is one last staggering piece of brain science: our hands
occupy are large slice of the motor cortex. In fact, our hands are so
important that moving them activates larger areas of the brain’s
complex cortex than does moving much larger parts of our bodies, such
as our backs or even our legs. The thumb alone takes up more cortical
space than our entire back!
Did we lose something vital to our mental health and well-being when we
started to push buttons instead of pulling up vegetables and churning
milk? It appears that depression levels have risen at the same time
that technological development has helped us ‘save’ time with
microwaves, email, prepared meals and washing machines.
I personally do feel
a sense of accomplishment when I have accomplished all of the things on
my ‘to-do list’ for the day. The pleasure from just intellectualising a
problem is rewarding because it activates the prefrontal cortex. But
effort-driven rewards activate the problem-solving prefrontal cortex
AND the movement-controlling striatum AND the reward/motivation centre
known as the nucleus accumbens. This leaves you with a fuller brain
experience that prepares you for life’s next challenge. Today we seem
to be more ‘knowledge workers’ than physical labourers. The decreased
brain activation associated with increasingly effortless-driven rewards
may over time diminish our perception of control over your surroundings
and increase our susceptibility to depression.
So what can we do to make ourselves happier and more resistant to
Anything that is meaningful to you and involves using your hands or
body! So start sticking in those holiday photographs from 5 years
ago, take a leaf out of grandma’s book and start knitting a
scarf/sweater/hat, go for a walk in the fresh air…the list is endless.
Now that I have used my fingers to type this all in, I am going to go
for a walk in the cold air around the lake in front of my house, and
then I am going to make some biscotti….the
tempting smell that will emerge from my oven will be good for my body
and soul…and of course my mental well-being!!
See you next month, and until then lots of hugs and warmest wishes for
these chilly February days.
Depression – A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your
Brain’s Healing Power. Kelly Lambert (2008), Basic Books.
Easy. Scientific American Mind (2008), pages 31-37.
Rates of Depression. G. L. Klerman & M. M. Weissman. Journal
American Medical Association (1989) volume 261, number 15, pages
Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Martin Seligman
(1992), Pocket Books.
of Depression in Today’s Society: Consideration for the Roles of
Effort-Based Rewards and Enhanced Resilience in Day-to-Day Functioning.
Kelly Lambert. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews (2006), volume
30, number 4, pages 497-510.