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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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