Suzana Herculano-Houzel

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Write the column, correct exams, deliver the report, call the contractor who didn’t show up, answer the accumulated emails, use the microscope, pay bills, go to the meeting, pick up the kids on time. The single-day agenda of modern life is hectic and the list would need to be under the eyes at all times to ensure that all the tasks are completed and in the right order, if it weren’t for our own built-in agenda: a part of the brain called the hippocampus. 

Traditionally considered the gateway to memories that we can express in words, the hippocampus showed in the late 1990s that it is also a key target for anxiolytics. What does recent memory have to do with anxiety? Remember that this memory is also the basis of projections for the near future, add this to the results of a decade of research into the hippocampus as an unusual controller of stress responses and you have the answer. Which, by the way, I felt first-hand a few weeks ago, when a huge list of things to do – good ones, mind you – left my head so hot that I couldn’t fall asleep, despite needing so much sleep that even my eyes hurt.

If electronic diaries have the advantage over paper ones of sounding an alarm when deadlines approach, the hippocampus diary is even better. As well as storing the list of tasks for the moment and the near future and keeping the rest of the brain aware of them, the hippocampus sets off alarms directly in the structures that make us attentive and alert, ready for action – and tense until the matter is resolved. In this way, it ensures that the tasks will receive your attention, especially the most pressing ones, which provoke the brain’s most intense responses of anticipated stress – in other words, anxiety.

Accomplishing the tasks, of course, is the guaranteed way to turn off the alarms. But until that happens, neuroscience offers some ways to avoid the problems brought on by anxiety – apart from anxiolytics, of course. Entertainment such as an engaging movie forces the hippocampus to change the subject, at least for a couple of hours; frequent physical exercise, affection and enough sleep make the hippocampal alarm go off more quietly.

Putting it all together is even better. When I found myself insomniac and restless on the sofa, watching a movie and almost reaching for a rivotril, my husband, my best anxiolytic, put me to bed and cuddled me until I fell asleep. I slept for 14 hours. It was so good…


Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on April, 2007. 

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