Use Your Hands! They Keep You Happy & Healthy

Which group would you expect to report more depression: older
people who had lived through two World Wars and the Great Depression, or Great_Depressionyounger 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.

Programmed For Pleasure
cavemenOur 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.

Effort-Driven 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 coordin
BBQated 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 to Survival
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
amish 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 Effort-Driven Rewards
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 café.

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 important areas:

* the brain’s motor system (striatum)
* its emotional and learning centre (limbic system), and
* the problem solving, planning and decision making centre (prefrontal cortex).

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 typ
homunculuse 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!

The Lifestyle-Depression Link
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.

to-do listI 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 depression?
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.
Jayne biscotti

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.

Lifting Depression – A Neuroscientist’s Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power. Kelly Lambert (2008), Basic Books.

Depressingly Easy. Scientific American Mind (2008), pages 31-37.

Increasing Rates of Depression. G. L. Klerman & M. M. Weissman. Journal American Medical Association (1989) volume 261, number 15, pages 2229-2235.

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Martin Seligman (1992), Pocket Books.

Rising Rates 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.


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