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Brain Power

March 9, 2010

Human Brain
The human brain is pretty extraordinary. It is an extremely complex organ and not usually the first body part we associate with birth, even though it plays a very important role. Understanding the function of the brain in labor and childbirth is extremely valuable- so lets look into it.

The brain is made up of the neocortex and the allocortex – with each of these being made up of other parts. The neocortex makes up the majority of our brain (about 75%) and is responsible for our “higher” thinking. It controls things like language, logical thinking and social skills. Sounds pretty impressive, huh? Well, with birth we’re not really interested in this stuff. During birth, the allocortex has the leading role.

The allocortex is the smaller part of our brain that controls things like hunger and involuntary motor commands (like breathing). During labor activity of the neocortex calms down, letting the allocortex to take over by producing the hormones (primarily oxytocin) needed for labor. If the neocortex is stimulated during labor, especially in active labor, the laboring woman is distracted from her work and childbirth becomes more difficult and, yes, more painful.

To help navigate around these big words we’ll just call the neocortex the “brainy brain” and the allocortex the “primal brain”.

Now, let’s talk about another hormone we produce- adrenaline. Adrenaline is an “emergency” hormone; it stimulates the heart-rate and dilates blood vessels and air passages so that you have an increase in physical ability for a short burst of time (so you could, say, run away from a bear). Animals also produce adrenaline when they are in danger but humans are special. Since we have the ability for much more complex thought, we can produce adrenaline by just thinking about a stressful situation- whether there is actually a real emergency or not. An important thing to know about adrenaline is that it stops the release of oxytocin.

Most of the “tricks” we doulas use during labor are intended to stop the stimulation of the brainy brain and to aid in the work of the primal brain. We are also trying to limit any stress or fear that the mother may feel to prevent the production of adrenaline (and subsequently a stall in oxytocin production). I understand that this all seems very dry and clinical and that most of us never really think about this while in labor or while supporting a laboring woman. Just like we don’t usually think about breathing- until there is a problem.

I would submit that we have a “problem” with birth in our culture. When more than 1 out of 3 women in our country are giving birth by c-section; we have a problem. I asked a nurse at one of our local hospitals what the epidural rate was there and she told me easily 95% (a client of mine was told 98% at the same hospital); we have a problem. So over the next few posts we want to go back to basics and look at the things that get in the way of birth. Lets look over the things that stimulate the neocortex (that “brainy brain”) or produce adrenaline and see how we can avoid them.

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