Last week in Resiliency: Fighting Emotional Abuse, I wrote about the concept of resilience. And how I taught myself to be resilient while growing up in an abusive home. I had no idea that was what I was doing then. I was simply trying to survive by any means necessary. Now that I know what resilience is, I can recognize that I was teaching myself those skills.
In this post, I am writing about the science behind resilience. When I was writing about resilience, I wanted to understand on a deeper level what it means to have a resilient brain. How can two people grow up in the same abusive environment, one appears to be able to overcome, and the other, stuck in the cycle of abuse?
It turns out the answer is within our brains (of course). Being resilient is a learned trait; neuroplasticity is the physical change that your brain goes through to reinforce resilience.1 After spending several days reading and researching, I now know enough to know that I still don’t know that much. Basically, this my disclaimer that I am not a neuroscientist, nor do I play on TV. I am merely someone who is curious and has access to Google and writes a blog.
I like this definition of neuroplasticity.
“…the change in neural pathways and synapses that occurs due to certain factors like behavior, environment, or neural processes. During such changes, the brain engages in synaptic pruning, deleting the neural connections that are no longer necessary or useful and strengthening the necessary ones.”2
Your Brain 101
To begin to understand the neurobiological evidence of resilience, we need to talk about what makes us, well, us; our brain. That three-pound super-computer is the mastermind behind everything that we do, think, and feel. I vaguely recall learning the different areas of the brain in science class. I am going to help you by doing what I did and backing it up a bit and starting with the basics.
What is our brain? “The brain is a soft mass of supportive tissues and nerves connected to the spinal cord. Some of the nerves in the brain go right to the eyes, ears, and other parts of the head. Other nerves connect the brain with other parts of the body through the spinal cord to control personality, senses and body functions from breathing to walking.” 2
All of those supportive tissues and nerves consist of billions of cells called neurons. Neurons transmit information to other neurons, muscles, or gland cells. Those transmissions are both chemical and electrical. I think of neurons like post offices. They sort and sift the information coming in and pass that onto the helper molecules called neurotransmitters (which I envision are like postwomen).3
From what I have learned so far, the transmission of information is essential to having a resilient brain. In my research, I focused on the transmission of data from one neuron to the other. I am amazed to know that all of that information is moving around our brains all of the time. Most of it, we are not consciously aware of it happening. Thank goodness for that. If I had to remember to blink my eyeballs would dry up consciously.
It has been more than twenty years since I sat in my Introduction to Psychology class and learned about Phineas Gage. His name and the circumstances of why this unassuming man in his mid-twenties is in neuroscience and psychology textbooks are forever in my memory. His experience is one of the earliest recorded examples of neuroplasticity.
On September 13, 1848, the then 25-year-old Gage was working as the foreman of a crew preparing a railroad bed near Cavendish, Vermont. He was using an iron tamping rod to pack the explosive powder into a hole. Unfortunately, the powder detonated, sending the 43 inches long and 1.25-inch diameter rod hurtling upward. The rod penetrated Gage’s left cheek, tore through his brain, and exited his skull before landing 80 feet away.
Gage not only survived the initial injury but was able to speak and walk to a nearby cart so he could be taken into town to be seen by a doctor.
Harlow presented the first account of the changes in Gage’s behavior following the accident:
“Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.'”4-5
You, Your Brain, and Resilience
All of those neural modifications that your brain is making leading to adulthood are the foundation of neuroplasticity and resilience. I came across an excellent blog, The Best Brain Possible, written by Debbie Hampton, that dives deeper into resilience and neuroplasticity. I highly recommend checking it out.
Her blog includes references to the research of Dr. Richard Davidson. What Dr. Davidson found from years of research, and wrote about in his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, is that signals from the prefrontal cortex to amygdala and back again determines how quickly the brain (you) recover from a traumatic experience.1
You, like me, are probably thinking, the what to the what now? Hang on there, I gotcha. The prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain located towards the front (near where your eyeballs are). That region dictates our personality, our goals, and our values.”8 The amygdala is located within the brain, down near the brain stem. It is best known for its role in processing fear, even though it does more than that.
When we encounter fearful stimuli, information immediately is sent to the amygdala. The amygdala then sends signals to the areas of the brain to trigger fight or flight.9 The amygdala detects stress in the environment, and the prefrontal cortex regulates our reactions to it. Part of the amygdala’s call to action is telling other parts of the brain to release cortisol into our system. Cortisol is considered the stress hormone and helps our bodies ready for that fight or flight response.10
Defcon 1 to Defcon 5
Also interesting to note that the left side of the prefrontal cortex has more dopamine receptors/activity (associated with motivation and reward) and the right side has higher norepinephrine activity (associated with anxiety).8
I found that interesting because, as Hampton writes, based on Dr. Davidson’s research, that increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex shortens the time that the amygdala is active. Meaning the messages leaving the amygdala to tell the rest of the brain what to do are cut short.1 It’s like going from Defcon 5 (peacetime) to Defcon 1 (we all are going to die) and then going back to Defcon 5, all in a relatively short timeframe.
If increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex shortens the amygdala’s actions, then the opposite is also true. The less activity in the prefrontal cortex, the longer the amygdala’s response. The amygdala is releasing the message to fight or flight for an extended time.
It’s like staying at Defcon 5 for a really long time. Sort of like how a lot of us feel with this pandemic. Staying at Defcon 5 longer means that more cortisol is being released into your system, keeping you on higher alert for more extended time.1&10
White Matter and Resilience
Luckily, Dr. Davidson’s research continues. As Hampton writes in The Best Brain Possible, Davidson confirmed via MRI that there is increased white matter (basically roadways that connect neurons) between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala of more resilient people.1 With these additional roadways, if you will, it means the brain can find different routes and paths to get beyond or shut down entirely that fight or flight response that the amygdala is sending out.
I don’t know what my brain looks like having never had an MRI. I would totally volunteer for an MRI (hint, hint neuroscientists). I would assume that it would look like the brain of someone who is a resilient person, with the increased white matter between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Maybe there is something different to be learned from my brain. I think it’s pretty special.
If I do get an MRI and I don’t have the increased white matter, would that change the way I view myself? Nope. I know that I did something, even if it wasn’t resilience, to survive an environment that a lot of people can’t even begin to imagine. No matter how I did it, I now know that I wasn’t alone. My brain and I were in it together.
- Debbie Hampton. “The Neuroscience of Building a Resilient Brain.” The Best Brain Possible (blog). August 5, 2018. https://thebestbrainpossible.com/neuroscience-resilient-brain-stress/#:~:text=Again%2C%20resilience%20is%20not%20a,change%20to%20reinforce%20the%20skill. Accessed July 30, 2020.
- “What is Neuroplasticity? – Definition & Concept.” Study.com. December 10, 2015. https://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-neuroplasticity-definition-depression-quiz.html.
- Kendra Cherry, “Phineas Gage’s Astonishing Brain Injury,” April 2, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/phineas-gage-2795244. Accessed July 31, 2020.
- “Phineas Gage.” July 23, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage. Accessed August 1, 2020.
- Duncan Banks. “What Is Brain Plasticity and Why is it so Important?.” The Conversation. April 4, 2016. https://theconversation.com/what-is-brain-plasticity-and-why-is-it-so-important-55967. Accessed August 3, 2020.
- Brenda Patoine. “The Abused Brain Neural Adaptation, Resilience, and Compensation in Childhood Maltreatment.” Dana Foundation. October 9, 2018. https://www.dana.org/article/the-abused-brain/. July 31, 2020.
- Matthew Dahiltz. “Prefrontal Cortex.” The Science of Psychotherapy. January 4, 2017. https://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com/prefrontal-cortex/. Accessed July 31, 2020.
- Marc Dingman. “Know Your Brain: Amygdala.” Neuroscientifically Challenged. June 24, 2014. https://www.neuroscientificallychallenged.com/blog/know-your-brain-amygdala#:~:text=The%20amygdala%20is%20recognized%20as,oversimplified%20perspective%20on%20amygdala%20function. Accessed August 3, 2020.
- Kylie Garber Bezdek and Eva H. Telzer. “Have No Fear, the Brain is Here! How Your Brain Responds to Stress. Frontiers for Young Minds. December 20, 2017. https://kids.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/frym.2017.00071. Accessed August 5, 2020.