Your brain and the hippo


I’ve not met a hippopotamus. While I accept that I might never be complete as a person because of it, it’s a deficit I can probably manage.

And although you may not have known it, especially given the size of your head, you are the very proud owner of a hippo. Actually, two hippos. Like these glorious beauties on the left here, cheesy grins and all.

Hippo campus and seahorses

To help you learn and remember, which fit like hand and glove, you need hippos. Both learning and memory are extraordinary things which we’ll look at in more detail another time. But just to get stuff in, and keep it in, requires a particular structure that takes its name from the Latin for seahorse. That’s because, strangely enough, it looks kind of like a seahorse. Kind of. It also looks like a ram’s horn, sausage, and the handlebars on an old racing bike but, seahorse was the winner.

‘Hippo’ is Latin for horse. (It really is. The hippopotamus is the river horse.) When you add this to the term meaning something like sea monster, you get a creature that’s part horse, part fish or, in other words, a horse of the sea.

It’s also the name of a critical memory structure called the hippocampus. Actually, structures, because you have one on each side of your brain. While it does a couple of things, such as help us navigate in space, the hippocampus is the primary site for the transfer of short-term information into longer term memories, especially relating to memories of experiences.

And in a brain that has the consistency of congealed porridge where it’s delicate and things can easily get broken, the hippocampus (plural is hippocampi) is susceptible. Here’s the kicker.

Glucocorticoids. Which is a flash term for stress chemicals

We’ve spent a bit of time looking at some divisions in the nervous system and a tricky little feedback loop, talking about hormones and stress and so on. Together, when these things coincide, there are some really important implications. Prolonged stress, with prolonged increases in cortisol (a glucocorticoid), keeps our foot on the Nervous System gas pedal, more than normal, all the time.

Unfortunately, the hippocampi have more than their fair share of receptors for chemicals like cortisol. Which means that the hippocampus is far more easily and dramatically affected by stress, than many other parts of the brain. With enough stress, we get hippocampal neuron death.

So here’s the take home bit

Ok, relax just a little bit. Apply some nervous system brake. I didn’t mean to frighten you into thinking that if you get a tiny little bit frazzled at work you’ll have massive and catastrophic hippocampal wipe out and you’ll never remember another thing. I mean for substantial stress.

But there are some good take homes.

The hippocampus is affected by significant stress like this:

  1. it generally doesn’t function as well
  2. it doesn’t grow new connections
  3. existing cells die

Managing stress therefore is important for good daily functioning and to make sure we keep on top of learning and memory. High stress environments, such as workplaces with bullies, may show up in hippocampal problems, with staff (or students if it’s a school) not performing as well.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Hippocampus, glucocorticoids

Have you experienced anything like this?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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2 Responses to Your brain and the hippo

  1. Pingback: Building better brains (Part 1 of 2) | Bite sized brains

  2. Pingback: How to create a false memory – in someone else’s head | Bite sized brains

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