Don’t Touch Your Face! Know Your Brain: The Basal Ganglia

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The other type of circuit, or indirect pathway, involves the subthalamic nucleus and allows you to suppress undesired movements — like when you become distracted by repeatedly tapping your foot. According to the model, a balance between both of these circuits functioning at normal capacity is what allows us to move smoothly.

We still have yet to fully understand the precise role basal ganglia has in day to day motor function, but there is a growing body of medical evidence that underscores its significance. In cases of Parkinson’s disease, for example, neurons in the substantia nigra that deliver the reward chemical of dopamine begin to deteriorate. Individuals afflicted with Parkinson’s have difficulty initiating movements and show symptoms like rigidity and slow movement. In patients with Huntington’s Disease, basal ganglia circuits degenerate and lose their inhibitory capabilities, making movements sudden and unpredictable.

The basal ganglia also plays an important role in psychological conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), particularly when interaction fails between the basal ganglia and two other closely connected structures — the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG). Damage to either one means the brain has a harder time detecting errors.

As a result, sufferers of OCD, according to one of the leading theories, experience an overflow of repetitive messages — they worry about problems that might seem irrational, but they learn that certain behaviors like repetitive hand washing give them a feeling of relief — so they repeat them often.

However, this theory fails to offer an explanation to why OCD patients feel dread or that something is wrong. An alternate explanation is that both the OFC and ACG are overactive and detect too many errors in their surroundings — reaching a state known as “brain lock.” Fortunately, this condition is treatable — either with prescription medications like Prozac or with  cognitive behavioral therapy.

What We Can Do

While the basal ganglia can help us accrue behaviors both irritating and desirable, we can also unlearn lifelong habits through it. In a time when touching your face can increase your risk of  infection, you may want to try to unlearn this particular behavior — something that can happen with time.

Dr. L. Kevin Chapman, who is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, has a few ideas of how we can manage. The first is to refocus the way you approach this problem — rather than saying you won’t touch your face anymore, you resolve to instead become more aware of when you do it — allowing you to take basic precautions first like washing your hands. In other words, don’t be so rigid that you feel like you have to give up when you find yourself doing it more than you should on a particular day.

Chapman also recommends using props — to refocus the anxiety that may cause you to touch your face in the first place — so you reach for a fidget-spinner or a squeezable stress ball rather than scratching just below your eye or under your lip. If you don’t have any of these at your disposal, you may want to make a note of when you most feel the urge to touch your face and try another behavior instead, such as sitting on your hands or clenching a fist.

If you’re someone who regularly touches your hair, you may want to try pinning it back to make doing so more difficult. Wearing gloves may also make you more reluctant to touch your face — as does wearing glasses, which can prevent you from needlessly and dangerously touching your eyes. In a time where no one is certain, being able to take control over the little things may be a good start.

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