Scientific American presents Everyday Einstein by Quick & Dirty TipsScientific American and Quick & Dirty Tips are both Macmillan companies.

Everyday EinsteinPeople approach life from a large range of anxiety levels. You’ve probably even noticed this among your own friends. One person seems to take everything life throws at her in stride, while another sees the smallest of obstacles as huge stumbling blocks.

So are less anxious people born with their ability to roll with the punches or have they just had the good fortune to not experience high stress environments? In other words, do our genes predispose us to being anxious? Or do our environments and life experiences dictate how mellow we are?

Our Brain Chemistry
Our body’s nervous system transmits information (from the brain to our muscles, for example) through electrically excitable cells called neurons. To communicate with each other, those neurons have to transmit signals over the gaps between themselves, junctions called synapses. Each neuron has around 7,000 junctions between other cells and so the human brain is expected to have 100-500 trillion synapses. We actually start out with more, a 3-year-old may have almost a quadrillion synapses, but that number declines as we age.

Cells use chemicals called neurotransmitters to pass signals from the transmitters on one neuron to the receptors on a neighboring neuron. We are not sure how many different neurotransmitters our brains use, but researchers have so far identified over 100 of these messenger molecules.

One such neurotransmitter is anandamide, a name that comes from the Sanskrit word ananda for joy or bliss, which (you guessed it) helps our brain communicate happiness, ease, and comfort. The levels of anandamide, otherwise known as the bliss molecule, in our brain are regulated by the fatty acid FAAH (fatty acid amide hydrolase) which works to deactivate the anandamide by converting it into other acids.

 

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