To grasp how serotonin works on the brain, look to the gut

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If you are driving home from work along a road you’ve traveled numerous times before, your mind is likely to wander. You might become absorbed by a great conversation on the radio, or start rehearsing for an important meeting the next day. You steer your car down your usual route in a largely automatic way, without having to pay deliberate attention to the steering wheel, the subtle movements of your feet on the pedals, or the ever-changing traffic conditions around you. Yet if you encounter a sudden cognitive challenge, such as an unexpected road closure, you are quickly able to shift gears, identifying a new route home via a side street that you rarely use.

This kind of shift toward more deliberate thinking happens in a variety of different situations: for instance, when you have to carefully search for the solution to an especially tricky crossword clue, or think of a new way to frame an argument to change a stubborn friend’s mind. How the brain balances between the cognitive modes involved in these scenarios – relatively automatic processing and more deliberate processing – remains poorly understood, which suggests we need new ways of thinking about it.

It’s instructive to start by considering the kinds of features in our brains that might help us handle challenging multitasking situations. Firstly, we need to be able to learn all the ins and outs of a particular challenge – otherwise, how might we anticipate the next step in a complex sequence, like driving along a road occupied by other cars and pedestrians? We also need to be able to process all the information related to the task at hand, without it seeping over into another process we’d like to run in parallel – otherwise, we might allow a crescendo on the stereo to affect whether we swerve our car’s steering wheel into oncoming traffic. In addition, we’d like to be alerted when any process we’re allowing to run on its own goes awry. Deprived of this control, we’d plow right through a red light or fail to notice a pesky detour sign.


To grasp how serotonin works on the brain, look to the gut | PsycheA 3D CT scan of the gut. Photo by Callista Images/Getty



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