The concept of lagom is Swedish, and means “just enough”. But how does the brain know when enough is enough?
By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.
In cognitive science, the Goldilocks Dilemma is about how we learn when we’ve had ‘just the right Our brains are geared towards homeostasis – the technical term for keeping biological balance. We eat food when our body needs nutrition and protein to re-organise replenish and fuel our cells; we drink when our body becomes dehydrated as the water composition drops below 60% (e.g. via sweating, urination), and we rest when our bodies are exhausted – just like Goldilocks did! However, our brains also learn - through trial and error - how to gauge when our body feels satisfied with our actions and when it doesn’t. Many of us have had the experience of eating or drinking too much at a party and living to regret the feeling of being too full afterward! On the opposite side, many people live below the poverty line and never get enough to eat. In modern Westernised societies we have grown used to industries that provide for our every whim through the increasing availability of food and illicit substances, or the lure of sexual images in the media. As such, many of us have lost the ability to regulate our actions to maintain homeostasis. This has led to huge rises in obesity, cardiovascular disorders, addiction, aggression, poverty and damages to the planet. Our out-of-control behaviours are not showing any sign of abating any time soon. But not all countries are losing the knack of being able to tell when enough is enough – in some areas of the world people can teach us a thing or two about self-regulation.amount’ of something to keep ourselves balanced.
In Sweden – one of the Scandinavian countries in the Northern Hemisphere – the people are often rated top of happiness and prosperity surveys, and they have a word that sums up the feeling of ‘enough’ – lagom (pronounced [ˈlɑ̀ːɡɔm]). The word originated from the Vikings, who would pass around Mead (a type of fruity, sweet, alcoholic drink) while sitting by the campfire after a day of battle or roaming out in the cold. To ensure that everyone in the camp was happy, the merry Mead-makers – to the chorus of “laget om (around the team)” – would take a swig or two from the horn, just big enough to satisfy their taste buds and quench their thirst, before passing it on to a neighbour. Such jolly behaviour meant that everybody got a fair share, and aggression – even between those fearsome Vikings – was kept to a minimum! The Swedes really embrace the notion of lagom today – to the point where there is a high level of trust in one’s neighbour – so that there are always enough resources to go around. As such, Sweden is often synonymous with high life quality, education for all, excellent health, low obesity and low crime.
Where then, might we find this mysterious lagom quality in the brain? Firstly, in the more primitive The ventral medial (“bottom-middle”) hypothalamus works when we are hungry and need to eat – excessive activation of this area has been linked to obesity. Conversely, the lateral (“side”) hypothalamus activates when we no longer want to eat, and has been associated with starvation and anorexia nervosa. Another interesting point about the hypothalamus, in relation to the stressful nature of modern society, is that it is part of a larger stress-related network, called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is overactive during acute and chronic stress, and leads to the release of adrenalin (increasing aggression), and cortisol (shutting down the body’s non-essential systems, like digesting food in the gut) to give the body higher energy levels. These systems happen in the mid-brain, and in the adrenal glands (located above the kidneys), but the prefrontal cortex also plays a huge part in learning to control our actions to achieve balance.mid-area of the brain is a region called the hypothalamus, which is essential for various homeostatic functions.
The prefrontal cortex, in the front of the brain (under the forehead), consists of various sub-regions, including: dorsolateral (DLPFC), ventromedial (VMPFC), orbitofrontal (OFC). The DLPFC is responsible for attending to and inhibiting actions, the VMPFC remembers what the outcome was of our previous actions, and the OFC evaluates the value (positive or negative) of those actions. Activation of these regions reflects an ability to learn from trial and error, and to predict whether something will satisfy us, become overwhelming, or leave us wanting more. As we gather more information about our day-to-day experiences of the world, we build a memory that is constantly updated, as we – and the world – change. People with damage – or under-development – to the prefrontal cortex may not be able to learn from their mistakes in order to lead a balanced life. An unbalanced life is an unhappy life – take it from the Swedes – and may result in long-term physical or mental illness.
So, the key is to try to exercise lagom in our everyday lives – by only eating a few, and not the wholepacket of biscuits, not spending too long on the treadmill or running the streets, watching our temper and the tempo of our voice with individuals who may try to provoke us into an argument.
The take-home message is this: balance is the key to a happy, healthy life! Lagom!
Dr Samantha Brooks is a neuroscientist at the UCT Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, and at Uppsala University, Sweden, specialising in the neural correlates of impulse control from eating disorders to addiction. For more information on neuroscience at UCT and to contact Samantha, see www.drsamanthabrooks.com. Note: Images royalty free, courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki.