A while back I wrote about stress and the brain and how it related to schoolchildren pressured to perform on exams, after I read Alzheimer’s and dementia were strongly linked to stress.
Teachers, generally academics, often say such pressure didn’t do them any harm – why should it harm anyone else? But the academic personality enjoys the finely embroidered rules of a man-made system, and naturally turns this talent to their career advantage. On the other hand the bulk of children reluctantly put up with the stress or do the least amount of work required for an acceptable grade.
If stress ceased on leaving school the damage could be repaired easily enough, as happens during holidays when the child gradually regains their enthusiasm and natural cheerfulness. The bigger problem is when relatively limited educational stress takes on a tyrannical dimension as the student either loads themselves with £40,000 of debt for university (typically £9,000 a year in tuition, with £5,000 board) or begins work, knowing that loss of pay means loss of home and food.
Society and our economy are based on the idea that more material goods means success: he who dies with the most toys wins. We buy a bigger house but spend less time in it as we take on more duties to pay for it. How is this successful? We’ve been in this dead-end materialst rut for so long we can’t imagine any other way to live.
Paradoxically, those somehow responsible for children’s welfare show a strange inability to learn. UK education secretary Michael Gove wants to increase the school day to 6:00 pm, and take away the Summer holiday, making a 42 week school year. Would 33% additional schooling (1890 hours against 1265) mean a 33% shorter school career? Of course not, since more is always better.
Under such circumstances the brain would have no chance even on a daily basis to recover its equilibrium, and we can safely predict a generation of damaged individuals staggering out the far end of this factory. A child on a 20 minute commute with 90 minutes of homework would spend more time working than their own parents, who they would see perhaps 2 hours a day: the whole family would be strangers, run ragged until childhood was over, without even a summer holiday to renew the bond.
More research has been released this week by the Universty of California at Berkely showing why chronic stress predisposes the brain to mental illness.
In a series of experiments, Daniela Kaufer, UC Berkeley associate professor of integrative biology, and her colleagues, including graduate students Sundari Chetty and Aaron Freidman, discovered that chronic stress generates more myelin-producing cells and fewer neurons than normal. This results in an excess of myelin – and thus, white matter – in some areas of the brain, which disrupts the delicate balance and timing of communication within the brain.
“We studied only one part of the brain, the hippocampus, but our findings could provide insight into how white matter is changing in conditions such as schizophrenia, autism, depression, suicide, ADHD and PTSD,” she said.
“You can imagine that if your amygdala and hippocampus are better connected, that could mean that your fear responses are much quicker, which is something you see in stress survivors,” she said. “On the other hand, if your connections are not so good to the prefrontal cortex, your ability to shut down responses is impaired. So, when you are in a stressful situation, the inhibitory pathways from the prefrontal cortex telling you not to get stressed don’t work as well as the amygdala shouting to the hippocampus, ‘This is terrible!’ You have a much bigger response than you should.”
The work was supported by a BRAINS (Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists) award from the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health (R01 MH087495), a Berkeley Stem Cell Center Seed Grant, the Hellman Family Foundation and the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.
When an iPhone or PC overheats, we switch them off to save the cost of repairs, and in the case of an iPhone, the sealed unit actually does this for you. It seems the brain has mechanisms designed to achieve the same thing – head injury survivors report an urgent need to sleep (and therefore heal) at random times. From Berkely’s evidence the brain even has a way to isolate damaged components from other ones, perhaps to lessen the impact of fault processing until they can be repaired.
But if the brain is dealing with a conscious personality willing to go to any lengths to meet deadlines, jacking up its performance on stimulants to continue difficult mental work long after the brain has cried “enough”, or trapped on a treadmill under threat of dismissal, is there any hope?
Fortunately, the brain is one superbly resilient machine. Relying on intuition, the ancients built a seventh day of rest into the stucture of society itself, with some religions even forbidding that work of any kind be performed on it. AJ Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically finds he must constantly tapdance around the bad fit of Old Testament Judaism with modern life. Is switching a light on considered work? An orthodox scholar advises that it is. Jacobs decides he can delegate this task to his wife – until he realises he might now be guilty of condemning her instead!
That staple of all spiritual schools, meditation, can help put the brain back into its natural state (even undoing chemical attacks from Donald Rumsfeld’s aspartame) which shows that of all mental exercises, meditation is closest to the brain’s natural inclination. This, and not superstition, is the reason it features in all religions, and not at all in modern education. Meditation has also been shown to combat the signal noise from modern life that gets in the way of creative performance. Meditation amplifies the power of the amygdala, thickens the cortex and increases telomerase, as pointed out elsewhere in this blog, and research shows that benevolent thoughts of others increases vagal tone.
Recent research even reveals that the “flow” of the creative mind is achieved not by those who practice endlessly but by those who have strong emotional control.
Here, we focused on individual differences in a group of 76 piano performance students and assessed their flow experience in piano performance as well as their trait emotional intelligence.
Multiple regression analysis revealed that flow was predicted by the amount of daily practice and trait emotional intelligence. Other background variables (gender, age, duration of piano training and age of first piano training) were not predictive.
Like a Rolls Royce engine, the brain might be a sealed unit for its own protection but it responds wonderfully to our conscious direction. If we have a choice, let’s treat it as we would any other damage-prone part of our body: soothe it – by immersing it in beauty – or at least give it a rest!
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)