Please don’t yell at me, I don’t understand

A couple days before I left for Paris, I started a new show called “The Good Place” (and finished about one season a day, but that’s not relevant to this blog post and I’m not proud of it). The premise of the show is that people who lived an honest and positive life helping the world end up in “The Good Place” after dying while the rest go to “The Bad Place”. In one episode, there was a particular line that stuck out to me:

“Plus, they’re all French, so they’re going to the Bad Place automatically.”This line got me scratching me head because I was about to live in France for five weeks! What’s so bad about the French?

Locations in Arles where Van Gogh based his paintings

Well, I’ve only been in Paris for about two weeks now, and I think I have a vague idea as to why the writers put that line into the show. The drivers are constantly honking up a symphony. Cashiers at the supermarket have no sympathy, and do not have a problem with letting you know that they’re upset with you if all you have is a 20€ bill. If you’re in someone’s way, people on the streets would rather walk right into you with a death glare rather than take one step to the right to avoid you. I’ve gotten pushed around, yelled at, and unfortunately, pick pocketed. The summation of my experiences the past two weeks has resulted in my interactions with the community members around me changing. And when an older French lady starts scolding you on the Metro, of course my mood changes from neutral to negative.

Van Gogh also seemed to have gone through a few mood changes during his time in France. During class this past week, we watched a couple of snippets from the movie “Lust for Life”, a biographical film on the life of Vincent Van Gogh. The famous Dutch painter moved to Arles, France to clear his head after living in Paris with his brother for over a year. However, it is in this place of isolation where he started to go insane. The movie illustrated that as time passed by, Van Gogh began to be less aware of his surroundings and the people around him, such as the bartender and the post man. And when his friend Paul Gauguin visited, he strongly expressed how lonely he had been. Van Gogh’s interactions with people began to shift, his mood changed, and he ultimately ended up cutting his ear off. This led me to learn more about the neuroscience of mood and interpersonal relationships.

Van Gogh’s self portrait with bandaged ear

Mood and emotions are tricky concepts as they are so subjective to each individual. One study was conducted on the neural mechanisms involving addition. It was found that withdrawal and aversive mood states may share a common pathway through the medial habenula (MHb) and interpeduncular nucleus (IPN) (McLaughlin et al., 2017). This pathway is associated with the medial forebrain bundle which is responsible for reward activation in the brain. Simply put, when something gives you pleasure, like drugs, the medial forebrain bundle is activated. When a patient that experiences drug abuse goes through withdrawal symptoms, they show aversive side effects and mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Another study was able to support this claim. A port-mortem study of sections from the brains of patients diagnosed with various mood disorders and depression showed significant reductions of the volume and area in the medial habenula (Ranft et al., 2010). The McLaughlin et al. study realized that the MHb-IPN circuit is where treatment should be targeted to treat drug abuse and mood-associated disorders. A partial explanation to Van Gogh’s mood swings and volatile interactions with others may be because of his addiction to drinking. Beyond simply the neural circuitry behind bad moods, neuroimaging investigations were also able to show that interpersonal emotions are associated with how we make sense of others’ state of mind. The anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex at the same time process one’s own bodily arousal during such interpersonal emotional experiences (Müller-Pinzler et al., 2017). Social neuroscience researchers are very interested in knowing how interpersonal relationships with the people around us affect our mental and physical state. The way that both Van Gogh and I have changed the way we interact with our communities can be explained through neural circuits in our ACC.

MHb-IPN pathway (McLaughlin et al., 2017)

Our mood can directly impact how we go about the rest of our day. It is interesting to know that how we interact with others has a direct effect on our brains and how we process our emotions. As I adjust the way I interact with fellow Parisians, I can’t wait to see how I adjust back when I go back to all-sunny-Southern-hospitality Atlanta!


McLaughlin I, Dani JA, & Biasi MD (2017) The medial habenula and interpeduncular neural circuitry is critical in addiction, anxiety, and mood regulation. Journal of Neurochemistry 142:130-143

Müller-Pinzler L, Krach S, Krämer UM, & Paulus FM (2017) The social neuroscience of interpersonal emotions. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences Springer 30:241-256

Ranft K, Dobrowolny H, Krell D, Bielau H, Bogerts B, Bernstein HG (2010) Evidence for structural abnormalities of the human habenular complex in affective disorders but not in schizophrenia. Psychol Med 50:557-567

Self-portrait with bandaged ear

The Good Place

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