Thursday, September 3

Looking after those precious frontal lobes.

If you asked someone how well they are looking after their precious frontal brain lobes you’re likely to get a rather quizzical look and at best maybe a reference to stimulatory activity they undertake to keep the brain exercised. Yet from early childhood it is important we don’t take these fragile regions for granted, because they can easily break down once exposed to trauma or put under undue pressure.    

Our precious frontal lodes came to us very late in the evolutionary cycle and are thought to be the additional dimension that gave us the capacity for a richer more advanced state of consciousness. Of course consciousness itself is a rather slippery concept and no one is quite sure precisely how the brain’s integrated circuitry brings all of this to fruition in the frontal lobes region. However the crucial nature of this fragile brain area becomes evident since it is the focal point to our existence and where we formulate judgments and have the capacity to ponder abstract concepts or come up with rich creative ideas. The downside is any damage to the lobes or undue stress can trigger an inability to function rationally with the risk of ensuing tragic outcomes.    

Elkhonon Goldberg, PhD an author and Professor of Neurology pointed out in a study of a large number of unpremeditated homicides, that all of those involved, without a single exception, were found to have evidence of prior damage to the frontal lobes. The study demonstrated that although such a group in normal type situations were clearly able to distinguish right from wrong, once they became involved or subjected to any highly pressured event they revert to lower level instinctive modes of behaviours. This poses tragic consequences for themselves and their victims, in the absence of cognitive strategies as compensatory measures.
It also imposes intriguing questions about the very nature of good and evil and when one can become temporarily insane.    

But even in the absence of a prior recognisable trauma an unhealthy build-up in fear can also precipitate many negative outcomes.
Edward Hallowell -psychiatrist –in an Article from Harvard Business Review -re published in the Work Space area of the Financial Review summed up the position as follows:  

As a specialist in learning disabilities, I have found that most dangerous disability is not any formally diagnosable condition like dyslexia or ADD (attention deficit disorder). Its fear. When the frontal lobes approach capacity and we begin to fear that we can't keep up, 'the relationship between their higher and lower regions of the brain take an ominous turn. In survival mode, the deep areas of the brain assume control and began to direct the higher regions.
As a result the whole brain gets caught in a neurological Catch 22. The deep regions interpret the messages of overload they receive from the frontal lobes in the same way they interpret everything. They furiously fire signals of fear, anxiety, impatience, irritability anger or panic. In a futile attempt to do more than is possible, the brain paradoxically reduces its ability to think clearly."

In everyday life a temporary loss of control through fear can happen much easier than we can imagine. Examples abound of people, subject to intense pressure, “blowing up” so to speak, evident in their childish outbursts where they revert to highly simplistic communications.    

Road rage is a good example of where a pent up fear and rage can spill over to a driver behind the wheel of car reacting irrationally in a fit of rage.
Fortunately there are many simple things we can all do to ovoid overload, apart from combatting the more serious maladies beyond the scope of this paper. What I always found helpful is to plan ahead, leaving some generous time allotted for unexpected events. Simply put, to allow time for contingencies. But what is even more important is to avoid becoming "fearful" of failing to meet deadlines. When unforeseen obstacles arise it is always better to negotiate a postponement than to continue on and allow anxiety of fear to take its grip.  I also always found it extremely helpful to take time out for contemplation, and to remind oneself there is always plenty of time to do what is really important and not to accommodate unrealistic demands. My view is this propensity to make unreasonable demands and to fail to allow for contingencies remains the continuing scourges of modernity.

Hence, I think many of the problems that beset us in modernity is not so much the rapid deployment of technology or added complexity but the unrealistic demands we impose on one another. Rather we fail to allow time to take care of our minds, to ensure adequate rest, to ensure there are sensible time allowed for relaxation, for nutrition and to avoid excessive pressure, often exerted by others with no idea of how much work is involved.

I think what is at risk in the roll-out of the digital transformation is the necessary human interactions to ensure sufficient time to incorporate safeguards and reliability. Today the scope for change is accelerating, but the question is are we advancing at such a rate of knots that we will become compromised to the extent we risk becoming overwhelmed. The risk is our already overtaxed brains fail to cope with the avalanche of information and the unrelenting demands made on us.

Another aspect that is overlooked as we move to a more robotic based existence is the reduction in the face to face communication and the consequences of this for our overall state of wellbeing. When you are talking to someone in a relaxed manner, your brain begins to buzz, releasing pleasurable feelings similar to endorphins when you exercise. Counsellors understand this principle as the very first objective is always to attempt to get a person to calm down since there is no point in attempting to reason rationally with someone who is in an extreme emotional state. This of course is not always possible or practical in attempting to deal with someone in a drug induced state or who is severely traumatised or enraged. But it helps us better understand when to intervene and the best course of action to take in our responses.     
I have always noticed, when making presentations the considerable advantages in talking to people in an interactive mode, how you always feel better than addressing large groups of people when you are in "remote" mode. When giving presentations I had wondered why that was the case, but I now understand it was more a matter the interactive format ensured the responsive bond meant we were all receiving reciprocal pleasurable stimuli, that made us feel appreciative afterwards.
But nowhere is this more important than in early learning. Youthful minds need plenty of sleep and nutrition and to feel good about themselves before they are able to concentrate and advance in early learning. The problems in the classroom of disruptive and unruly children can usually be traced back to them feeling unsafe or angry. It’s probably more important to help teach young students how to deal with their anger than it is to read and write and some schools are beginning to understand this with miraculous results. What was reported in relation to one school was the idea of showing students simple pictures of happy and sad or angry people and asking them which one applied to them. 

The end result after teachers were able to spend some time discussing different problems was an immense improvement in outcomes. By way of example incidents in the playground of 30 -4o altercations per month subsequently reduced to zero.

There is no doubt humans have the marvellous capacity to be innovative and make new discoveries including a rethink of where we go from here, but time will tell.


Tom said...

Hi Lindsay; A thoroughly fascinating post. This may have interesting applications to the ideas about lower self (ego) and Higher Self. Further on, I wonder whether Christology (is that the right word) might also be involved.

I notice that there appears to be a possible onus on "teachers" to become involved, and that bothers me a little. Not because I think teachers are not up to the task necessarily, but because here I am using "teachers" as anyone passing on information to another, including peer groups. I do think there needs to be some acceptance of these ideas by the students themselves, and that may not be an easy sell, particularly when it comes to switching off their pet electronics.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Tom,
Indeed my view is the higher order functioning made possible in the frontal lobes is where we have the potential to transcend the ego in favour of our Higher Self and furthermore possibly this is the repository for our soul. But just as the frontal lobes break down under pressure, so can a nation, regardless of its Christian base, when fear takes its grip. Hence, I think both collectively and individually we can also easily revert to a simplistic style of thinking, to arbitrarily apportion blame and risk repeating the same excesses that have continually dogged humanity. Hence, to go beyond the concept of good and evil, and to attempt to show reverence for all life, one firstly need to calmly turn ones attention to fleshing out the underlying reasons for fear or aggression. That can then at least form the catalyst for more well considered non emotive responses.
On the question of student responsibility I agree with you there must be some student acceptance of their role in all of this but bear in mind on the example I gave it was about a school in a particularly disadvantaged suburb. Many of the students simply needed a ‘’hand up” as they were lacking in support.
This is in stark contrast to a talk I gave to about 70 schoolchildren locally, aged 8-10 years on Malawi in conjunction with their ongoing theme based on social justice. What worked really well was the format where after each picture and or story I continued to invite and ask questions. This seemed to capture their interest to the extent, with just one short break, their attention and enthusiasm to ask questions continued unabated for 1.5 hours. I found it was a pleasure to make a presentation to such well-behaved and highly thoughtful children. This is no doubt due to the school, great teachers and supportive parents and I was very pleased to be small part of that ongoing positive process
Thanks for your comment and let’s hear what you think further Tom, if you feel like adding in a few more pointers. Best wishes

susan said...

It sounds as though the school system in Australia is much better balanced than the one I know best - the US where there are a lot of very poor people, a few very rich people, and a middle class that's shrinking by the day. While the poorest fight an often losing battle to keep their children safe and the rich provide every imaginable benefit to theirs, the children of the middle class are often overscheduled by activities that will keep them busy mentally and physically (in order that they can succeed in the inevitable competition for good jobs). The problem that's developed because of that is that the children have very poor coping skills when they're in unstructured environments or are faced with the necessity of making clear decisions.
Another very serious problem for American children is that the educational system has become an environment of judging children's performance by standardized test results. The program, which takes no notice of children's differing abilities, is considered by many thoughtful people (a number of them teachers) to be an attack on education itself.
The program you described sounds like one that could be of great advantage to a majority of children.
Best wishes

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Susan
The school system in Australia I think may be better than the US but still needs more investment. Yet the Abbott government ignored the findings of the Gonski Report. Instead, without any prior consultations with State Premiers, they slashed 80 billion from forward estimates of spending covering education and health. What they arrogantly ignored was Gonski’s idea that education is not so much a cost but an investment in the future, particularly in relation to our location in the fast growing Asian region. But the extent of this arrogance can be ascertained by the fact Gonski was considered a preeminent businessman of impeccable credentials who devoted an extraordinary effort with a panel of experts to come up with a fairer funding basis that took account of student needs in lower socio economic regions and avoided the excesses so apparent in the US system. Instead his report was confined to the dustbin. I can only begin to understand how he must feel, but the country is the big loser.
Best wishes