Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


The Neurobiology of Stress: the Human Brain and How It Responds to Stress


Wor­ry is like a rock­ing chair. It gives you some­thing to do, but it gets you nowhere.
— Erma Bombeck

The brain is the con­trol cen­ter for all of our thoughts, actions, atti­tudes, and emo­tions. It ’ s the pilot­house on the river­boat of our lives. It’s Mis­sion Con­trol for all of our ? ights into space or time. It ’ s the air traf?c con­troller that helps us nav­i­gate and reroute our paths based on incom­ing and out­go­ing infor­ma­tion and how we’re feel­ing about it at the time. It’s the John Williams of our per­son­al sym­pho­ny. It ’ s the Moth­er Ship to our Star?eet; it’s … (Uh, sor­ry, I got car­ried away there, but I think you get my point!)

As I was work­ing on the drafts of this chap­ter, my own brain was very active, to say the least. I kept hear­ing in my head the words of the old Jack Scott favorite (#5 on the charts in 1960), ask­ing me that musi­cal ques­tion: “ What in the world’s come over you? ” The song also won­dered if I could ever change my mind.

At ?rst I took this mes­sage from the deep mem­o­ry stores of my brain to be a pro­tec­tive warn­ing about the writ­ing task upon which I had embarked. But alas, this melo­di­ous warn­ing was, as they say, too lit­tle and too late. Mad­ly typ­ing away, I ban­ished the tune from my head. I had an unquench­able desire to tell the sto­ry of the impact of stress in the lives of kids with LD and ADHD, not to men­tion the fact that I had a signed book con­tract sit­ting in a fold­er on my desk.

The cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al cen­ters of my brain col­lab­o­rat­ed nice­ly to keep my ?ngers mov­ing on the key­board, but I under­stood why that song kept pop­ping up. I was not with­out my own stress about writ­ing this chap­ter. To say “I wrote the book on stress” is not the same as say­ing I had con­quered it. (In fact, it ’ s a dou­ble — enten­dre. Get it? … I wrote the book while stressed … nev­er mind.)

Seri­ous­ly! How was I ever going to write an intro­duc­tion to the brain, the most com­plex organ in the human body, that you, my read­er, would want to read, and that you would under­stand?

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of text­books and schol­ar­ly arti­cles con­tained deep and dense dis­cus­sions by bril­liant sci­en­tists all over the globe who were try­ing to explain the mys­ter­ies of this incred­i­ble organ, and I had to do it in 70,000 words!

You’ ll learn in this book that the best way to com­bat stress is to gain some con­trol over what­ev­er it is that threat­ens you.

My own stress lev­el began to go down dra­mat­i­cal­ly as I real­ized I didn ’ t have to tell the entire sto­ry. I just need­ed to focus on the parts and sys­tems of the brain that are most involved in the per­cep­tion and pro­cess­ing of stress. As a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist, I ?nd this part of the sto­ry incred­i­bly inter­est­ing, and hope you will as well. Try­ing to tell the sto­ry of stress with­out putting it in the con­text of the brain is like writ­ing a nov­el with­out giv­ing the char­ac­ters a set­ting in which to act out their dra­mas. With­out con­text, the read­er can’t see where the action is tak­ing place.

This helps explain the per­cep­tion of the many par­ents, kids, and even teach­ers who tend to view the behav­iors that result from stress not as brain-based, brain-gen­er­at­ed reac­tions but as pre­med­i­tat­ed oppo­si­tion­al or even de?ant mis­be­hav­iors. Putting the char­ac­ters of this sto­ry — the symp­toms of stress — in the con­text of the brain and cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem makes it pos­si­ble to under­stand their nature and their pur­pose in a way that makes scienti?c sense. So … stay with me as I set the stage for an amaz­ing tale about how the brain deals with stress, and how the pres­ence of neu­ro­log­i­cal­ly based ADHD and LD put a spe­cial spin on the sto­ry.

To most peo­ple, the brain is ter­ra incog­ni­ta, a price­less piece of neu­ro­log­i­cal real estate that we’re glad we own but tend to take for grant­ed unless or until some­thing bad hap­pens to it. So let’s take a brief tour, just so you can appre­ci­ate the ines­timable val­ue of this mirac­u­lous organ called the brain. (If you ’ re very famil­iar with brain anato­my and func­tion, you might want to skip this overview and move on to “The Stress Response Explained,” lat­er in this chap­ter. You can always return to this sec­tion if sub­se­quent read­ing reveals that you need a refresh­er.)

The aver­age adult human brain weighs about three pounds (a kilo­gram and a half), which is a lit­tle big­ger than a small can­taloupe or a large grape­fruit, depend­ing on the grow­ing sea­son. It starts out sub­stan­tial­ly small­er, of course, but as cer­tain kinds of cells devel­op and change as a child moves into adult­hood, the brain grows in size. As a result of myeli­na­tion (the devel­op­ment of the out­er coat­ing of the long stem of brain cells, or neu­rons), and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of glial cells (the term glial comes from the Greek word for glue), which hold the brain togeth­er and feed it, an adult brain is about three times heav­ier than it was at birth. This is why you occa­sion­al­ly have to buy new hats.

The largest and most rec­og­niz­able part of the brain is the large dome — shaped cere­brum, which is the out­er­most lay­er of brain tis­sue. If you lift off the skull and look down on the brain from above, it looks rather like what you see when you lift half the shell off a wal­nut. How­ev­er, the cere­brum is not stiff like a nut; it has a thick, jel­ly-like con­sis­ten­cy that allows it to lit­er­al­ly bounce around inside the skull, which is why it ’ s so impor­tant to pro­tect the head from encoun­ters with immov­able objects.

A sheet of neur­al tis­sue called the cere­bral cor­tex forms the out­er­most sur­face of the cere­brum. It includes up to six lay­ers, each one dif­fer­ent in terms of the arrange­ment of neu­rons and how well they con­nect and com­mu­ni­cate with oth­er parts of the brain. The cor­tex is dis­tin­guish­able by its many lit­tle ridges (called gyri) and val­leys (sul­ci). In terms of space, the cor­tex is an eco­nom­i­cal­ly arranged region that folds in on itself many times. This results in a very large but main­ly hid­den sur­face area that con­tains more neu­rons than any oth­er part of the brain.

Jerome Schultz Jerome 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.

Relat­ed arti­cles:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

3 Responses

  1. Cynthia says:

    I don’t think stress can be elim­i­nat­ed com­plete­ly, but it can be con­troled to mod­er­ate lev­els. Stress can also be a killer, and con­trol­ing it is a must.

    • Good point. In fact the goal is not to “elim­i­nate it com­plete­ly” but to learn how to “ride it” the same way one would ride a bike — it is a capac­i­ty to be devel­oped, and a crit­i­cal one in our soci­ety since we will always be fac­ing one stres­sor or the oth­er.

  2. K.C. Pfluger says:

    Stress can­not and should not be elim­i­nat­ed. It is required for growth. As men­tioned above, it should be learned how to con­trol it and expand our endurance to tol­er­ate stress so we can safe­ly grow our abil­i­ty to han­dle it and still func­tion in our lives.

Leave a Reply

Categories: Attention and ADD/ADHD, Author Speaks Series, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Search in our archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)