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Are people behaving badly or in poor brain health?

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

How many times have we frowned upon people behaving badly? For millennia, the main lens we had to understand the brain was by observing behaviour. We have spent decades devising strategies to shift, nudge and change people's behaviour. Pause for one second, now imagine, you have a window inside the brain when someone is behaving badly. You would immediately see that the front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is not lighting up (Davidson and McEwen 2013). Then we see that the amygdala and hippocampus are going off like an alarm bell. These parts of the brain play a major role in bad behaviour, such as screaming at someone that cuts you off in traffic. We know that the prefrontal cortex is required for healthy brain function and plays a role in good behaviour.

Healthy brain function can be measured through our executive functions (EFs). Strong EFs arise from the physical connections in the prefrontal cortex functioning and communicating well. When EFs are strong we maintain attention longer, remember what we are told and can manipulate mentally allowing us to follow instructions. This improves our ability to make short term decisions and long range plans, and most importantly we can say no to unhealthy things for ourselves. Strong executive function in the brain allows us to monitor ourselves and as a result prevent overreaction, or acting out, eating unhealthy food, and drinking too much. What is our collective responsibility with this new knowledge? Do we work out ways to increase the activity of the brain of someone behaving badly to bring the prefrontal cortex on-line or not? This is the philosophical dilemma we are facing as the new knowledge streaming in from brain science research is quickly changing our mind about what leads to good and bad behaviour and mental health disorders.

The evidence is mounting that good and/or bad behaviour arises from the health of the underlying physical brain. We are born with a unique brain architecture. To put this into a different context. Let's think about when we are cooking and use a recipe. To prepare a meal we start with the recipe, follow the instructions, buy the ingredients, put them into an empty pot. After stirring the ingredients, we have made a beautiful chicken kiev. You are now asked to make fish and chips but this time you start with the meal you have prepared, the chicken kiev, rather than starting with a new recipe and the ingredients. How may you ask? Now to translate this to back to the brain’s architecture and people. People are born with a predetermined meal from a recipe built from generations of ingredients. This means when we are asking people to change their bad into good behaviour immediately, it is like turning a chicken kiev into fish and chips. It takes innovation, outside the box thinking, time and effort. Where do you start from?

How neuroscience helps us understand how to change behaviour. Meet Molly and Maisy

The fundamental structure of the brain is guided by an inherited blueprint or hardware, and we share this in common. Having a common hardware is important for basic activities like eating, drinking, and moving our bodies. What makes us unique is the software, or the parts that are plastic and coded from our life experiences. Such as the places we are born, parents, diet, love and attention we have received. Because our life experiences are varied, this means people have different starting blocks, there is spectrum that exists from a little to an extreme resilient neural network. This means that everyone handles stress differently. Now consider how this translates into differences in our ability to learn and succeed at school, in relationships, and across the lifespan. Let’s meet Molly and Maisy.

Molly and Maisy are two students starting school for the first time. Molly comes dancing into the classroom on time, sits down, and is happily paying attention to her teacher. The teacher and classmates talk about Molly as being the smart, easy going and well behaved one. Next to Molly sits Maisy. She often arrives to school late, often while finishing a can of coke, and sometimes wearing different coloured socks. Molly strolls into the classroom, poking faces at her classmates, and ignoring her teacher. The students love Maisy because she makes them laugh. Her teacher thinks she has her work cut out for her with Maisy. Unlike Molly who has been reading to her parents since she was 3 years old, Maisy has just started reading. The teacher and classmates talk about Molly being the naughty one. Maisy is the poor student and she has just started school.

For a moment, let’s turn to what’s happening inside the brain of Molly and Maisy. There is burgeoning evidence that the brain's physical structure or architecture is pre-determined and can be shaped by good and bad experiences. Adverse or bad life experiences tend to leave an indelible mark on the brain and impact on long-term mental health and illness across the lifespan. Healthy or good life experiences promote brain health that contribute to building stronger brain architecture that buffer toxic stress. If Molly and Maisy are in the playground and they trip over and scrap their knee, we would race them to the first aid station and attend to their knees. When we start to view Molly and Maisy through the lens of the quality of their brain health. How do you now view Molly and Maisy’s behaviour?

The main impact of toxic stress is on the prefrontal cortex, the area at the front part of the brain that drives our executive functions (EFs). The components of EFs that are important for success in health, career and life are attention, inhibition control, and working memory. If we are born with a brain architecture that is impacted by stress over a long time the parts of the brain that support EFs are likely not as strong as someone who has come from a loving and supportive home. Let's return to Molly and Maisy and think about the differences in their life experiences and how this impacts their ability to sit still in class, listen to instructions, and have "good behaviour". Think about having the ability to shine a light on activity in the prefrontal cortex of Molly and Maisy. What do you think you would see? Would you think about the impact of Molly and Maisy's life experiences on their ability to learn, sit still and behave well. How do we translate this knowledge into understanding and actions that would benefit both Molly and Maisy brain health at home, school and for the rest of their life? The good news for Molly and Maisy, we are learning tools to harness the brain’s plasticity. This is ripe avenue of research and it is being shown that physical exercise is one of the best ways to improve EFs and brain plasticity. There are many others including nutrition and cognitive brain training. By promoting brain health and executive brain function we lessen the cumulative impact of "toxic stress" on the ability of the brain to learn and as a consequence facilitate good behaviour.

How to tap into the brain's plasticity over the lifespan

The hidden potential of the brain for change has been known for a long time dating as far back as Lao Tzu and Buddha. In fact, the Buddhist monk’s brains have now been scanned by Dr Richard Davidson’s research lab. They discovered that mediative practices expand parts of the top part of the brain- the prefrontal cortex- making them less impulsive and more able to handle stress. The famous author Viktor Frankl who wrote, “Man’s search for meaning” survived the holocaust concentration camps in the 1940’s. He writes about having a strong mindset combined with purpose that helped him survive the horrific treatment and conditions compared with others that did not survive. He was describing how he developed a form of brain training to train his mindset to not only cope but to thrive beyond the camps.

The Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof got his nickname “The Iceman” by breaking several records related to cold exposure including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, running a half marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot, and standing in a container while covered with ice cubes for more than 112 minutes. Wim Hof discovered neuroplasticity to become more resilient. From this discovery, he went on to create the scientifically validated Wim Hof method, that involves simple techniques that include breathing, ice exposure, and conscious control of his body temperature and immune system. Wim Hof has now trained thousands of people around the world with his simple techniques, published in top scientific journals, such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

There is growing evidence that exercise, meditation, nutrition and cognitive brain training can be applied to improve executive functions. Imagine when the view of the brain is more akin to being like a muscle and needs daily training and is incorporated into physical exercise programs. Taken together understanding and assessing the health of the physical architecture of the brain will amplify our understanding of why people do what they do, both good and bad. By only paying attention to behaviour without considering the underlying health of the brain then we are missing a great opportunity to improve people’s lives. Neuroscience and technology have revolutionised our understanding of what drives bad behaviour. The trick is improving the health of the brain first.

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