Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Brain's Worst Nightmare: The Four Horsemen of Neuro-Annihilation

[Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.

I often think it would be very difficult growing up a kid in today’s world, especially a teenager. There’s so much going on and change happens so quickly, it’s unquestionably much more stressful than when we were their age, struggling to make sense of the world. Things like HIV, global warming and terrorist threat levels were unheard of then. Even though we had the same raging hormones running sprint races through our bodies, neither we, nor parents, teachers or clergy realized that our brain wouldn’t come to full flower for another six to twelve years! Few teens today will reach early adulthood with instruction or practice in managing what Stanford neuro-biologist Robert Sapolsky has identified as the four primary destroyers of optimal neural growth. Probably most adults don’t know what they are, either.

Neuro-Annihilator One: Lack of Control

The first neuro-annihilator for kids (and adults as well) is the experience of having little control in their lives. Teaching kids from an early age, how to recognize what they can and they can’t control in developmentally appropriate ways, and then taking steps to help them in doing so, goes a long way towards connecting up parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex where executive function will come to reside. If you click on the link, you’ll be reminded of all the things prefrontal connections allow us to do, things like make plans, keep track of time, reflect on our actions and engage productively with groups.

Unlike many American mortgage bankers who thought it was a good idea to give "liar loans" to people with little hope of ever repaying them, a master at realizing the importance of structuring learning to allow people increasing, appropriate control, is Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. By forming the Grameen Bank which offers women in developing nations a series of graduated micro-loans beginning with $100, Yunus simultaneously puts them in control and manages to keep their neurophysiology from running wild. Compare and contrast this with America’s crushing personal and corporate debt burdens (U.S. debt, currently the highest in history, nearing 14 trillion dollars, is expected to more than double in the next ten years! Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury is taking in roughly six times LESS employment tax revenues. Is this a recipe for crushing national allostatic load, or what?)

Neuro-Annihilator Two: Living with Little Predictability

The healthy brain is an anticipation-prediction machine. When we operate in environments where there is little predictability and we have little idea what to anticipate from one moment to the next, chronic stress results. This allostatic load triggers the release of high levels of glucocorticoids like adrenaline, cortisol and glutamate. Glucocorticoids circulating at high levels in the blood eventually end up destroying neurons, particularly in the hippocampus, the center of memory and learning. Things like high unemployment, delinquent bills and home foreclosures are examples of unpredictability that become stressors making it literally difficult to think straight.

Neuro-Annihilator Three: Little Social Support

I'm pretty convinced that most relationships, when you strip away all their complexity, have a single, primary purpose - to help restore us to homeostasis, to help us feel calm and safe.

Recently, we brought two eight-week old kittens home to the house – Archie and Lulu. Initially they were very skittenish, keeping to themselves, dashing behind furniture the moment I walked into the room, and pretty much avoiding all contact. Within three days, though, they were eating out of my hand and napping on my lap. The combination of the rough-house play they continually do with each other and the freedom to rest when they tire, works wonderfully to grow their little brains. And my letting their natural curiosity bring them to me. I then play with them using bird feathers attached to a string on a tomato stake.  I also make few loud or threatening noises, even reducing the sound of my slippers on the hardwood floor because it startles them. I am someone who “gets” them, someone who understands what scares them and refrains from doing that. So, they have each other, and they have me and my partner for effective social support. The key word being effective – able to play with and care for them and assure their safety and well-being. We do our best to answer the Big Brain Question "Yes" for Lulu and Archie.

Neuro-Annihilator Four: Having Few Outlets for Managing Stress

One question I often ask my students is: How do you know when eustress (good stress) turns into allostatic load (bad stress). I get any variety of responses, but by and large the answer is that most don’t know when that line has been crossed usually until long afterwards. They have allergic reactions, make mistakes, get sick, get into accidents, obsess, sleep poorly and displace hostility onto those closest to them, often without the slightest awareness that allostatic load might be the root cause of the difficulties.

Allostatic load damages the brain by suppressing the release of “trophic factors.” (Trophe comes from the Greek word meaning “nourishment.” What sunlight and water do for tomatoes and roses, trophic factors do for brain cells). Learning to preemptively predict and effectively address such stress shifts might be the greatest nourishing gifts we can offer our children, and ourselves as well. Since the evidence is overwhelming that allostatic load significantly damages the brain, if we don’t help one another learn to effectively manage it, then unwittingly, we risk damaging all our brains.

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