THIS IS YOUR BRAIN. this is your brain on stress.

     Want something else to worry about? Worry about worrying too much. The evidence is building that chronically elevated stress shrinks your brain!

     A study in press at the journal Biological Psychiatry asked 103 people about how often they had experienced stressful events, both recently and over the course of their lifetimes, as well as about their chronic ongoing stress, and then took functional magnetic resonance images of their brain. The more stress, the smaller the brain…in several particular cortical areas.

  •  “Cumulative adversity (a combination of recent stressful events and the lifetime total of stressful events) was associated with smaller volume in medial prefrontal cortex  (PFC), insular cortex , and subgenual anterior cingulate regions.”
  • “Recent stressful life events were associated with smaller volume in two clusters: the medial PFC and the right insula.”
  • “Life trauma (total stressful events over a lifetime) was associated with smaller volume in the medial PFC, anterior cingulate, and subgenual regions.”
  • “The interaction of greater subjective chronic stress and greater cumulative stressful life events was associated with smaller volume in the orbitofrontal cortex , insula, and anterior and subgenual cingulate regions.
  •      And what do all those cortical areas have in common? They are all associated with reasoning and decision making, with emotion, and with self-control. The researchers were careful to say that “…lower volumes do not necessarily equate to poorer functioning,” adding “…it may be that regions of lower volume represent greater efficiency in functioning.” In other words, smaller brains may not mean less competent brains.

                Except that other research suggests precisely that…that stress does have functional impacts on how well our brains work. It impairs formation and recall of long term memory, and stress is also strongly associated with clinical depression and with a decreased ability to cope with stressful experiences! So not only does the research on stress-associated brain shrinkage suggest that it causes functional mental impairments…one of the problems it appears to cause is the very ability to deal with further stress…which is a really scary positive feedback loop.

          Now how, you might wonder, does that relate to the topics we talk about in Risk; Reason and Reality, a blog about risk perception? Directly, because clinical stress is caused by, among other things, worrying. There are every day worries, and chronic worries, big worries and small worries. But worrying of any sort is, essentially, feeling threatened, and that triggers the biology of the Fight or Flight response, which causes levels of stress-related steroid hormones like glucocorticoids  to go up. If those levels persist for more than several days, they start to do permanent damage, including, it appears, shrinking the brain, especially the parts of the brain involved in higher order reasoning and decision making. So worrying more than the evidence says we need to, about child abduction or terrorism or industrial chemicals, is literally a risk factor for shrinking the part of the brain we need to be more thoughtful and rational about risk, rather than more emotional. Talk about a scary feedback loop!

                There are all sorts of ways to reduce stress, whole industries that peddle various products and pills and processes to help you stay calm. May I humbly suggest one that none of the meditation gurus and pill pushers talk about; understanding how the psychology of risk perception works. Research has identified specific characteristics that make some threats feel scarier than the evidence says they are. These are the emotional reasons why we sometimes worry too much. Knowing them can help us worry less.

  • Risks imposed on us (those other drunk drivers) feel scarier than the same risk if we engage in it voluntarily (driving drunk ourselves, which is riskier).
  • Risks that involve higher pain and suffering (cancer) are scarier than risks which involve relatively less pain and suffering (heart attacks, which is riskier).
  • Risks that are human-made (nuclear radiation) are scarier than risks that are natural (carcinogenic radiation from the sun, which is riskier).
  • Risks that are immediate (industrial pesticides) are scarier than those that are down the road (climate change, which is WAY riskier).
  •        (There are many more risk perception factors in Chapter 3 of my book, How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, which is available free online )

         If we’re aware of these risk perception factors, we can see how they contribute to our worries, and we can fight back, at least a little, against those disproportionate fears. We can protect ourselves, at least a little, against the dangers of what I call The Perception Gap, the risks that arise when our subjective/emotional risk perception system gets risk wrong. We can use that self-awareness as a sort of seat belt for when we drive in the dangerous environment of making subjective choices about risk, which sometimes can lead to dangerous errors, including worrying too much. Our risk perception system mostly works pretty well to keep us alive, but it’s subjective, and sometimes makes mistakes, judgments that feel right but just plain don’t match the facts. Knowing why we make those mistakes can help us begin to avoid them. Which can help us protect ourselves, including from the risk that worrying too much will shrink our brains.

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    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.

    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.