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How to Give Thanks like a Neuroscientist (by Anita Ramanathan)

  • You’re on your way to the traditional Thanksgiving family get-together. You drive down a familiar street, locate your familiar house, and park in a familiar spot.
    Thank you, hippocampus, for dutifully encoding Wisteria Drive, the light-blue-colored Colonial house and the parking spot next to the creepy oak tree almost twenty-eight years ago. I owe you one.

Wait a minute. Whose new convertible is that on our driveway?
Hippocampus, remind me to find out.

  • You step out of your car and notice that the neighbors still have their Halloween pumpkins on display. Ew! They look hideous.
    Well, at least I can decipher a ‘face’ in those god-awful, shriveled carvings. Thanks, fusiform gyrus.
  • You quickly snap a picture, and send it to your roommate, along with, of course, the face-with-tears-of-joy emoji.
    Thanks, again, dear fusiform gyrus, to help comprehend the world of two hundred and seventy nine emojis. You’ve revolutionized the way we text.
  • You stare at the magnificent spread on the dining table. But tonight, you resolve to eat in moderation. No matter how delicious the food is, as an evolved human, you have the ability to suppress an urge.
    Thank you, prefrontal cortex, for being my sleek, determined executive controller. Your strong-willed decisions have saved my many embarrassments, especially around free food.
  • As soon as you open the door, you catch a whiff of blissful aroma from the kitchen. Ah! You smell pumpkin pie.
    Wow, olfactory receptor neurons, you went from transducing smells to the olfactory bulb to making my stomach growl in no time! Thanks. Now I really have to eat.
  • The ovoid, curvaceous gravy boat sits proudly next to the turkey, fulfilling its sole responsibility on Thanksgiving Day. You’ve always cracked up at its odd shape.
    Hey, visual cortex, thanks to your ventral pathway for helping make sense of shapes. They sure ask “what” a lot, but I know they mean well.
  • Your pants feel tighter as you eat, but you continue gorging the smooth, creamy mashed potatoes. I can’t stop! This is so good!

Congratulations. You’ve fallen for the moves of the neural seductress, the ventral tegmental area. She has the (electrical) potential to make you feel so loved, so rewarded, and so addicted. Thank you, thank you, and I don’t care!


Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex shakes his head in utter disappointment.

Psst! Cerebral gossip: Ever since you made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight earlier this year, the steadfast prefrontal cortex has been in a complicated relationship with the ravenous ventral tegmental area.

  • Amid the clatter of forks and plates, your aunt interrupts your intimate moment with the pumpkin pie with, “Say, when are you going to graduate and get a “real” job?”
    Whaaa, where did this come from? Your vigilant amygdala senses potential fear, and nudges the hypothalamus to sort out a fight or flight response. Your eyes widen. Your heart is beating faster.

But let’s face it. You’re too stuffed for a fight. You’re too stuffed for a flight.

The amygdala makes a note: Your mind wanders to an ongoing manuscript revision. Do not fear unsolicited questions about career. Especially when eating dessert.

  • Your mind wanders to an ongoing manuscript revision.

[In reviewer voice] You missed being thankful for the brain stem.
Wait, really? Why should I?
[In reviewer voice] Because no one messes with the Mr. Brain Stem. We’re all just happy to have the support, and always cite him.
You sure have the nerve to randomly name-drop Mr. Bigwig Brain Stem.
[In reviewer voice] Yes, (cranial) nerves III – IX, to be specific.

Your corrected manuscript now reads: I’m extremely thankful for the brain stem.

      • It’s 10:30 PM. You try to keep your eyes open, but the idea of snuggling into your bed seems rather appealing. Oh, the sweet relief of melatonin. Yawn.
        Thanks, suprachiasmatic nucleus. Nighty-night.

Any views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of PLOS. 

Graphics designed by Joo Yeun Lee.

Anita, Headshot, 2016

Anita Ramanathan is a researcher, science writer and storyteller. She is an editor at the award-winning neuroscience education website, Knowing Neurons. You can follow her at @anitarrn

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