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The Neurobiology of Stress: The Little Brain Down Under

(Editor’s note: below you have part 3 of the 6-part The Neurobiology of Stress series. If you are joining the series now, you can read the previous part Here.)

Stayin’ Alive

Understanding the Human Brain and How It Responds to Stress

The Little Brain Down Under

The tour continues . . . Sitting under the occipital and temporal lobes of the brain is the cerebellum. It’s about the size of a child’s fist. Because it looks like a separate brainlike structure attached to the underside of the cortex, the cerebellum is sometimes referred to as the “ little brain. ” It’s connected to the brain stem, which in turn connects the brain to the spinal cord. The cerebellum used to be relegated to the very simple role of helping us maintain balance when we walk or run, but modern neuroscience has found that the cerebellum plays a much larger and more important role than that.

Like the hypothalamus, it is involved in cognitive functions, including attention and language, as well as the ability to hold mental images in the “mind’s eye.” This part of the brain is important to the discussion of stress, since recent research has shown that the cerebellum also plays a key role in regulating responses to pleasure and to fear — strong forces when it comes to loving school or hating it.

The BeeGees song “Stayin’ Alive” reached #1 on the pop charts in 1977. Maybe it was the beat, maybe it was John Travolta’s dancing. Or maybe it’s that the Gibb brothers ’ central lyric is quite literally always playing in our head. Keeping us safe — that is, “stayin’ alive ” — is the primary mission of the brain. The brain works very fast and very hard — mostly in the background — to do just that. It’s exquisitely positioned close to ears, eyes, nose, and mouth so the signals from those sensory organs get into it without delay. Everything we encounter in our daily lives gets sent, incredibly fast, from our ears, nose, mouth, skin, and eyes to our brain for processing. The brain controls the other organ systems of the body, either by activating muscles or by causing secretion of chemicals such as hormones. That three – pound mass of gray and white matter somewhat miraculously uses this unending and potentially overwhelming stream of information to change our physical position, our pattern of thought, and our feelings or emotions — all in the service of keeping us alive. After all, a brain without a body is, if you will forgive me, nobody at all.

Now that you have had a brief introduction to this marvelous and complex organ called the brain, it will be easier to understand what happens to the brain under stress.

To Be Continued…

  • November 7th: Stress Response Explained
  • November 14th:  The Human Brain Likes Balance
  • November 21st:  To Fight, Flee or Freeze –That is the Question

Jerome SchultzJerome J. Schultz, Ph.D., the Author of Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It (Jossey-Bass; August 2011), is a clin­i­cal neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist and is on the fac­ulty of Har­vard Med­ical School in the Depart­ment of Psy­chi­a­try. He served until recently as the Co-Director of the Cen­ter for Child and Ado­les­cent Devel­op­ment, CCAD, a multi-disciplinary diag­nos­tic and treat­ment clinic which is a ser­vice of the Cam­bridge Health Alliance, a Har­vard Teach­ing Hos­pi­tal.

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2 Responses

  1. gregorylent says:

    phrenology 2.0

    • Not really, no one is saying that one’s skull is a meaningful indicator of anything. That different structures/ networks of the brain support different functions is a pretty clear framework, much more accurate than a “black box” model.

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