Has the economic turmoil of the past two years stressed you out? If so, you might find it harder to snap back than you expect. It turns out that all that stress may have rewired your brain in ways that make you stupider, unable to cope with changed circumstances and more likely to stay stressed.
Chronically stressed rats tested by researchers in Portugal lose their elastic rat cunning, falling back on familiar routines and rote responses, according to the New York Times. The rats exhibited counter-productive behaviours like “compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.”
And this wasn’t just a habit. Moreover, the rats’ behavioural perturbations were reflected by a pair of complementary changes in their underlying neural circuitry. On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviours had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed.
In other words, the rodents were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers. “behaviours become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviours when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.”
Even worse, we’re not well-suited to figuring out when we’re suffering from this mental version of carpal tunnel syndrome. It’s a repetitive stress injury to our brain that we’re lousy at detecting in ourselves.
Obviously this has both political and economic implications. Political abuses and economic downturns can produce high levels of stress across broad sectors of the population. In fact, it’s easy to see that a kind of hopelessness could develop that might prevent an escape from economic depression or political tyranny. Goal-oriented behaviour shrivels. Decision-making crumbles.
Here’s the good news. It’s curable through relaxation. When the sources of stress are removed, behaviour can return to normal. What the Times doesn’t ask is whether some individuals or groups might be better equipped to handle stress, snapping back more quickly. We’d imagine that those who recover more quickly would have economic advantages–buying stocks or starting businesses while the rest of the population is still wallowing in the passing recession.
Here’s the thing, though. Being too early to snap back in dynamic markets might be an overly risky strategy. If you buy stocks before the broader population is ready, you might get them cheap. But you’ll also likely have to ride out a lot of volatility while waiting for the brains of investors to reset themselves. What you really want to do is not just be able to recover quicker than everyone else but anticipate the normal pace of mental recovery. When you’ve got that figured out, please let us know.
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