A veteran neuroscientist and clinical psychologist explores the changes that occur in our brains depending upon how we deal with challenging situations.
For the past 40 years, Robertson (T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist/Univ. of Texas, Dallas; The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, 2012, etc.) has dedicated his research to answering one question: “How, when and why do some people rise to the challenge of bad experiences, while others fold under their weight?” In this review of benchmarks in his career, he begins with his days as a student in the 1970s when he was training to become a clinical psychologist. At the time, the prevailing wisdom held “that experience only molded the very young brain.” After that, the brain’s neural circuitry was hard-wired and could only be changed by electric-shock therapy or medication. “In 1984…the sky fell in,” writes the author. Experiments showed that the brain is not hard-wired and is, in fact, changed by experience, and the left and right hemispheres of the brain play different roles in how individuals respond to stress. Furthermore, neural circuits in the brain’s right hemisphere activated anxiety-ridden avoidance, while a positive response to challenge was associated with left-hemisphere activity. In 2012, another piece of the puzzle came together when Robertson helped to establish the role of one of the brain’s key chemical messengers, noradrenaline, in helping the brain maintain attention. “Millions of mini-infusions of noradrenaline, triggered by millions of mental challenges,” create a cognitive reserve in the brain by stimulating the growth of neural networks, provided the challenge does not create severe stress. The author, who writes clearly for a popular audience, had identified the equivalent of a wonder drug that plays an important role in maintaining cognitive ability as we age.
An intriguing overview of important developments in brain research, specifically as it relates to finding “the right mental balance we need for each challenge that faces us.”