Dr. Erin Bigler Speaks About “The Passion Brain”

Dr. Erin Bigler opens and closes his talk by referencing a quote from Einstein that says, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Dr. Bigler, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University, applied this message to looking deep into the brain. His talk actually centered around one area of the brain that is deep in the brain.

Erin Bigler

Addiction is one of the disorders that understanding the brain’s reward center can help explain. It releases dopamine in the brain’s reward center. (Flickr/ Creative Commons / Neil Moralee)

To watch Dr. Bigler’s talk, “The Passion Brain,” please click here.

This area of the brain, nucleus accumbens, is no bigger than the size of a bean, yet it is incredibly powerful. Do you ever wonder what drives passionate people, such as Olympic athletes, nobel laureates, and motivational speakers? Dr. Bigler’s talk has some insight into this question. While those previous examples were positive passions, there are some negative passions, such as crimes of passion or addictions that must also be understood.

The way that he learned about this miniscule part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, was by using brain imaging. He admits that he used to use electrodes on animals to study the brain. That was before he helped found and was the first Director of BYU’s MRI Research Facility. He operated his talk on the assumption that the brain is what controls behavior.

The type of brain imaging used to illustrate the nucleus accumbens was magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. This is where things get interesting. Dr. Bigler pulls up an MRI of his own brain. He later displays a model brain that is a replica of his own brain.

For the person interested in what drives passion, this video would be the perfect explanation from the neuropsychologist’s perspective. Dr. Bigler found that the brain’s reward center, the miniscule nucleus accumbens, is what drives passion.

The tiny area of the brain about the size of a bean is in the subcortical area of the brain. This means that it operates below our conscious awareness. Remembering a rewarding time might operate on the cortical, or conscious, level, but what drives rewards operates below the surface, deep in the brain.

The cortical area that controls thinking and cognition is huge compared to the small reward center of the brain. But even though the reward center is small, it is incredibly powerful. Understanding this area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens, is critical to understanding emotional disorders, such as addictions, which flood the nucleus accumbens with dopamine.

With his three-dimensional replica of his own brain coupled with his explanations, the talk is very educational and helpful to those trying to understand both human behavior and the brain.


Gordon Johnson

Attorney Gordon Johnson is one of the nations leading brain injury advocates. He is Past-Chair of the TBILG, a national group of more than 150 brain injury advocates. He has spoken at numerous brain injury seminars and is the author of some of the most read brain injury web pages on the internet.

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