According to neurobiologist Candace Pert¹, every emotion we feel circulates through our bodies as chemicals called “neuropeptides,” short-chain amino acids or proteins that talk to every cell of our body. Pert’s research suggests that these molecules of emotion play a significant role in guiding what we experience as perception and conscious choice. According to Pert, “Our emotions decide what is worth paying attention to. The decision about what becomes a thought rising to consciousness and what remains an undigested thought pattern buried at a deeper level in the body is mediated by the receptors of our body-wide, biochemical, information network.”
So, why do we keep getting into the same kinds of relationships, having the same kinds of arguments, encountering the same kinds of bosses? According to Pert, when receptor sites are repeatedly bombarded with peptides, they become less sensitive and require more peptides to be stimulated. Receptors begin to crave the neuro-peptides they are designed to receive. In this sense, our bodies are addicted to emotional states. When we have repeated experiences that generate the same emotional response, our bodies will develop an appetite for these types of experiences. Like addicts, we will draw experiences toward us that give us a fix.
Are we hard-wired for life? According to Pert, the answer is no. While the brain was previously thought to stop developing in early childhood, exciting new research shows that we continue to produce flexible and regenerative new cells and rearrange the existing connections between cells throughout our lives. We can change because neurons are inherently flexible and regenerative. This applies to the molecules of emotion.
Current research suggests that various modalities of psychotherapy change not only one’s mental state but also the state of one’s brain, including increased blood flow and normalised activity in the parts of the brain that regulate emotion, such as the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Talk therapy has been shown to change the brain in ways similar to antidepressant medication.
¹ Pert, C.B. (1997). Molecules of emotion: Why you
feel the way you feel. London: Simon & Schuster UK.
² Martin, S.; Martin, E.; Rai, S.; Richardson, M.; Royall, R. (2001). Brain blood flow changes in depressed patients treated with interpersonal psychotherapy or Venlafaxine Hydrochloride. Archives of General Psychiatry, 58, pp. 641-648.