The Suicidal Brain

Death by suicide has been the most misunderstood of all deaths. In order to understand suicide, one must examine the root of the problem. This analogy is meant to expel the myths and falsehoods and explain the suicidal brain. The following analogy will show that suicide is not a sin, crime, choice, or character flaw. Suicide is the end result of a brain disease. Hopefully, this analogy will bridge the gap in understanding the suicidal brain.

  • Self-death [suicide] is the end result of a Limbic Disease of the Brain
  • It is global
  • This Limbic [mood and behavior] Disease afflicts about 121,000,000 people world-wide, and it is fatal to about 850,000 people each year world-wide (World Health Organization)
  • This disease is treatable
  • No one chooses to have this disease
  • It is not a respecter of age, gender, race, or economics
  • It is not a sin, crime, choice, or  character flaw
  • The following analogy is meant to help bridge the gap in understanding the suicidal brain


Human brain compared to a house

Five lobes compared to five rooms

Communicating system compared to a main breaker box

Limbic system compared to a basement

Orbitofrontal cortex compared to a computer

The amygdala compared to an entertainment center

The hippocampus compared to a digital piano

The hypothalamus compared to a digital wall thermostat

The cingulate gyrus compared to a lighted ceiling fan

Limbic system compared to an unfinished basement

Stress compared to a circuit breaker

Death compared to a fire

The brain, due to the growth process, takes twenty to twenty-five years to reach maturity, but a house can be built within weeks or months.  Both the brain and the house have built-in survival systems that will be discussed later.

The lobes and rooms are similar.  They serve a specific purpose, and yet they are inter-connected.  Remember, a critical part of the frontal lobe does not fully mature until the mid twenties.

Before going to the basement, let us examine the signaling mechanisms.

Our communication system within the brain is analogous to the main breaker box in a house.  The healthy brain is wired, insulated, and equipped to survive.  It also has built-in circuit breakers alerting us to danger.  I call these circuit breakers symptoms that indicate a problem.

Deep inside the brain, we find the limbic system.  This system, or circuit, in its mature and properly functioning state is similar to the family room in the basement.

This circuit regulates mood and behavior in humans.  To understand this system, we must examine the individual structures of the limbic system.  Later, I will explain what happens when major problems occur with these structures.

The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is the executive control center for mood and behavior.  Its functions and regulations are vital for a healthy brain; however, it does not completely develop until the mid twenties.  While developing, other limbic structures must replace the OFC’s executive function.  This is most noticeable in adolescent and young adult behavioral changes.

The amygdala controls the expression of emotional behavior.  It helps regulate:  appetite, mood, memory, aggression, sexual/social behavior, comprehension of social cues, and drives/impulses.  Unfortunately, it does not reach full maturity until age eighteen.  The ‘fight-flight syndrome’ is one of the many actions originating in the amygdala.

The hippocampus helps regulate a person’s mood.  It is needed for new learning to occur and the formation of memories.  This structure matures at approximately eighteen years of age.  Without the hippocampus, a person would not be able to remember.

The hypothalamus controls or regulates many important functions in the human body.  It is involved with mood, emotion, complex behaviors, and cognitive speed.  Full development takes place between fifteen to twenty-five years of age.  The hypothalamus is most noted for its involvement in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

The anterior cingulate gyrus is involved with attention, drives, and motivation.  It matures during puberty (girls eleven to fourteen and boys thirteen to sixteen).  The anterior cingulate gyrus helps regulate mood and emotions until the orbitofrontal cortex matures during young adulthood.  Next, the major problems of the limbic system will be explained.

The limbic system controls mood and behavior; however, several functional problems can occur during childhood, adolescence, and the young adulthood years.  Frequently, these developmental years prove to be the origin of mood and behavior disorders.

There are several origins responsible for mood and behavior disorders.  For example, chronic stress can be a precursor to these disorders.   Heredity (genetics) and pathological (developmental malformations) factors also play a role.  The origins listed above usually have overt symptoms.  These could include regulation of drives/ impulses, moods, and aggressive behaviors.

In the above illustration, the symptoms were detected by a properly functioning circuit breaker.  The next ones are different….

A properly functioning limbic system sustains our ability to survive in the most extreme conditions.  When this system malfunctions, it can produce fatal consequences….

Sources listed on the Brain References page


This website is not intended to provide any type of counseling or medical advice.  It is solely for informational purposes.  If you need help, it is suggested that you do one of the following:  call 911, go to the nearest emergency room, seek medical advice, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).