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Mental Illness Is A Metabolic Disease

Updated: Jan 6


I listened to this podcast twice last night: The Knowledge Project: #92 Lisa Feldman Barrett: Balancing the Brain Budget. I will probably listen to it again.


Not only did Shane Parrish, the podcast host, ask great questions, but Lisa Feldman blew my mind several times over. Barrett is a neuroscientist studying emotions. Here are some key points of their conversation, in case you don't have an hour and twenty minutes to spare:

  • Emotions are not universal, meaning people express or contribute their feelings of anger in many ways, possibly more cultural than anything else might give it definition. There are no universal physical associations to emotions, either.

  • When we think we "know" how other people feel or what they are thinking, we guess based on our own prior associations. We should stop this practice. We don't know---we guess.

  • Human bodies synchronize and regulate each other's nervous systems in proximity. When we are with a distraught person and try to comfort them (whether or not we are asking if that is what the upset person wants), our bodies are trying to self-regulate because the other person's distress distresses us, too. This is what drives empathy.

  • It's tough to sit with someone else's raw emotion. We need to ask: do you want empathy, or do you want a solution?

  • Western society's cultural context emphasizes the importance of learning an expansive emotional vocabulary. Children who can better pinpoint their emotions are less likely to develop drug and alcohol dependencies.

  • There is no difference between a mental illness and a physical illness-everything is part of the metabolic system. Depression, Alzheimers, and diabetes are all metabolic diseases.

  • Human brains are big because our bodies are big; they were not evolved larger for us to think, but to regulate our bodies better.

  • Our brains are like a large company's CFO: its job is to manage and budget the metabolic systems in our bodies, to make sure we have enough oxygen, water, sodium, amino acids, etc., for all of our organ functions. (there's an analogy for ya!)

  • It takes brain budget to process emotions as it is also a biological function. Sleep, sex, and exercise balance the ledger.

  • It doesn't have to be sex; it can be touch or acts of kindness. This is because humans are social creatures and need positive socialization.

  • When we don't get enough (sleep, sex, exercise), it puts our brains in a deficit. Sustained deficit leads to metabolic illnesses because the brain starts killing off the more "expensive" actions, like learning.

  • Sleep is Barrett's number one recommendation for all humans. She also says it is one of the bigger reasons adolescents struggle with depression. Their devices keep them awake, and they are not getting enough sleep.

There is so much more. I can't recommend this enough. Plug for Barret; she published a new book, Seven and a Half Lessons of the Brain.

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