Humans love feelings, and yet the masses largely know little about the chemicals that cause those feelings. This lack of knowledge places feelings in the same mystical category as magic, religion, or the otherwise unfathomable. Biology and chemistry are closer than kissing cousins. We love to feel feelings about biology and because of biology, but it’s chemistry that defines many of biology’s boundaries. And feelings can be a beautiful thing. But we sometimes attribute incorrectly more substance than is due. Sometimes feelings are really not feelings as much as symptoms of lack of feelings. And all feelings are the result of chemical reactions.
Like darkness is not a thing, but rather the absence of light, in the same way, some sensations like depression are evidence of the lack of certain neurochemicals – not necessarily the presence of any.
There is an important pair of industries that have done their research in this field – mental health providers, and medical suppliers. They’ve thoroughly and exhaustively tested and plundered data to determine what makes us happy, sad, and everything in between. Now, stimulus triggers physical responses for the most part. I won’t get semantic about every trigger and will just stick with solid generalities here. Once something has set our mind in motion, things tend to happen quickly.
Neurochemicals are released into the brain, then receptors receive and use each chemical, because each type of receptor is designed to chemically interact with a specific substance. The reason we are able to feel the whole pantheon of feelings we have as humans is a small set of neurochemicals mixed together in various proportions are used as signals in our body to tell it how to respond to stimuli. For our topic today we’ll say the mind is a kitchen, or, a restaurant. Like any good metaphor, there’s varying parallels with a kitchen atmosphere that will help get a rudimentary understanding how our minds work.
It’s great to understand that different mixes of ingredients will lead to different results. But for my purposes, I’d like to talk about materials, ingredients, tools and equipment as well. If our brain’s the kitchen and the goal is to have a steady stream of food ready for the table at mealtimes, it needs raw ingredients and the means to prepare them well. If we have a faulty wiring system for our electricity, none of the kitchen appliances will function as intended, nor will the lights work for the chef. If the pots and pans we have are warped, handles loose, or improperly suited to our projects in size or character, our product will suffer. Even if we had the best ingredients, a chef in the dark with inadequate equipment cannot make the best meal.
If we have imbalanced levels of water, salt, sugar, proteins, etc… these weaken or strengthen the dish, and they can increase or reduce the volume of food we can produce. Ideally, we have a kind of soup with little varied parts floating around our brain, they would all be high in nutrients from different food groups, all necessary for a healthy functioning body. When we have a good diet of enough nutrients, water, and genuinely restful sleep, our healthy body can use all of that to make our brain’s neurochemicals like the best souffle, sushi, roasted pig, green beans, tamales or anything else, and serve it up in just the right proportion at just the right time.
However equipment or materials can be limited, which in turn limits results either way – but of course both together is worse yet. And sometimes the chef is untrained, misinformed, or bad tempered, which are all threats just as real to overall success in the brain’s kitchen as faulty supplies or facilities. Even without any issues with all of the variables covered therein, too much pressure, timing issues or even bad luck can be of detriment to the mind’s abilities to cope with and respond to stimuli. Because stimuli are like orders in a restaurant, they may often follow patterns like busy times in the day, or that in the winter people eat more soup and want holiday favorites, whereas in the summer cool drinks and salads prevail. But sometimes we want ice cream in January, and sometimes we run out of it in July, and sometimes we want it at midnight.
Speaking of running out, that’s where the rub lies. A well stocked kitchen will serve a hearty breakfast, and a lean one will serve rations. A kitchen in poverty conditions will gorge on new stock leaving little to be saved, or will horde every precious drop while still starving. The conditions of the kitchen drive the product, setting the menu. Some of us have a five star restaurant, while others have a bare a soup kitchen.
Some of us are frugal in using our mental resources, while others are frivolous. Some of us serve the same thing with regularity while others, no set menu at all. Being able to adequately parse out and use mental resources effectively is not a matter of willpower, fortitude… it’s a skill not acquired by all any more than fiscal responsibility or social graces. Most of us would like to believe there is an unending font of happiness, but that’s not true – any more than there’s an endless supply of cakes. Cakes are made and eaten, and run out – thus the phrase “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”. Because, once you’ve eaten the cake, it’s gone.
Our mind uses dopamine like ice cream, it makes us happy, excited, and feel accomplished. It’s a treat. Our mind uses seratonin like comfort food, making us feel safe and loved. We rely on it to feel alright. Our mind uses norepinephrine like coffee for a thrill in the beginning, or for maintenance after long enough use. Our mind uses endorphins like medicine to kill our pain, except that’s where the metaphor breaks down because actually pain medicine just mimics or triggers those very endorphins, that’s how they work. We need enough building blocks to build our mind’s menu, so we can order a steaming hot plate of job well done satisfaction, or a cold dish of revenge, or egg on our face or humble pie or anything else and get it just like we want it. If we’re out of ice cream, we’re going to feel bummed out about that.
If our brain’s receptors are the patrons of our mind’s establishments, then those in the five star restaurants are seated in an orderly fashion, disruptions are ejected, orders are made and meals are served up with relative smoothness. These nerves can end up showing small signs of wear when overworked at peak periods or during unusual circumstances, but typically maintain their composure. With enough time to clear the tables and refresh the area, ongoing business can proceed with minimal inconsistencies. However, if we have soup kitchens open limited hours to a rowdy, demanding crowd that eats all the food quickly, fighting over scraps, then of course the area is either in complete unhealthy disarray, or is locked down to a grim efficiency to maintain a minimum stability.
With shortages in food leading to malnutrition, resources and commodities are highly traded and manipulated to best advantage, with no waste or lavish display. People need to maintain every bit they can to try to continue to feel ok, let alone great. With so many stimuli causing our minds to order up feelings, it’s no wonder we’re frantically scrambling eggs just to throw half of them away after a distracted yet dissatisfied customer wanders off again. That’s due to so many people not knowing that they don’t have to order up feelings based on stimuli or expectations alone or at least not enable them further. They can decide when and how they make things – what they put on their menu, and what price they set.
Setting our range of expectations, norms, limits, and goals can go a long way toward achieving judicious use of our resources in efforts to better our lives. Setting working hours, conditions, and minimum standards for our minds are healthy ways of making sure we are producing adequate food that hasn’t been contaminated. If we allow our mental health to deteriorate, we can easily set back any success we hope to achieve. We need to keep our priorities and processes in good working order to make best use of the resources we have and to seek better if needed. Food, water, restful sleep and feeling safe are just a few keys to our mind’s abilities that allow us to achieve and maintain happiness or satisfaction. Taking note of when we have depleted or overworked our bodies and minds is critical to avoiding complete burnout. Just like when babies cry they are telling us in their own way that they are tired or hungry, so too is our sadness or grief telling us when we’ve run out of supplies, or need to close the kitchen for repairs and maintenance.