Tuesday, November 23, 2010

School Prayer and the Effect of Stress on the Brain

I recently watched a documentary concerning the effects of stress on the human body and brain.  It was one of the more educational documentaries I have ever seen.  It was called "Killer Stress" and is available through PBS or Netflix.  (Anyone without a membership in Netflix would be well served to take advantage of its free trial just for the purpose of perusing its list of documentaries, which generally can be watched instantly through one's home computer.)

The documentary focused on the research of Dr. Robert Sapolsky regarding the effects of stress on baboons and other animals in Africa.  Dr. Sapolsky was the author of "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers", which pointed out that for most animals stress is an infrequent and short lived phenomenon.

Usually, these animals live relatively stress free lives until their group is attacked by a predator.  The majority of the animals in the herd experience this as a short burst of adrenaline.  Only the unlucky individual that is killed and eaten experiences anything more than that and that particular animal doesn't live long enough to have any long term stress or long term effects from the stress.  (See ftnt. 1)

When the focus of the research shifted to primates with their larger brains and their more complex social structure, however, a different result appeared.  In those animals, signs of chronic long term stress appeared and were tied directly to the animal's place in the social hierarchy.  The lower the animal's place in the pecking order, the higher the stress and the greater its negative effects.

Those at the highest levels vent their feelings on individuals at the next level, who, in turn, not only vent their own feelings on those at the third level but also pass on any ill-treatment received from higher ranking individuals to those in the lower ranks.  And so on, with each lower rank receiving more and more ill-treatment from above.  At each level in the hierarchy moving downward, there is a measurable increase in stress hormones and the deleterious effects of stress.

The documentary also included the work of Sir Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London (UCL).  Prof. Marmot's work has shown how the effect of long term stress found by Dr. Sapolsky in baboons is also present in humans and is also directly tied to the individual's place in the social hierarchy.

The documentary then shifted back to Dr. Sapolsky's research on the effects of stress.  One of his most critical findings was that it negatively affects the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory formation, making it much more difficult to learn.  (See ftnt. 2)  Anyone who has ever suffered from chronic stress knows this is true. 

Chronic stress is often a trap because the individual can become unable to learn how to deal with it.  Furthermore, given the extent to which cognitive function determines one's status amongst humans, the person will also be trapped in the lower rungs of the hierarchy because he or she will not be able to perform cognitive tasks to the full extent of his or her ability.

The reason for this is the effect of stress hormones on the brain and body.  Under acute stress of the type normally felt by Zebras under attack by a predator, all body and brain functions are shifted to the immediate fight or flight response needed to survive the short term problem.  Almost everyone has experienced this phenomenon when, under stress, we found ourselves suddenly unable to remember things we know perfectly well.

(I would surmise that this also has the beneficial side affect for survivors of blunting the memory of the attack to a degree.  Although it is well known that traumatic events leave vivid and lasting memories, one can only suspect that these memories would be even more vivid and lasting were it not for this effect.) 

Stress is directly related to one's place in the social hierarchy and directly interferes with the individual's ability to learn.  Organized prayer sessions will automatically move members of the minority who do not pray to the bottom of the hierarchy.  (In fact, as I pointed out before, there is no other reason to have daily, organized prayer sessions.)  This will make it more difficult for them to learn, which directly undermines the mission of the schools.  Given the extent to which education is a series of steps, each of which builds on the previous, this could have devastating long term effects on the individuals thus hindered.

In my experience, the religious do not care about education except to the extent needed to maintain their social position.  In fact, they are often quite hostile toward it.  Their primary concern is whether children have a "religious education"--meaning appropriate indoctrination.  They recognize that higher education is inimical to religion and will sometimes say that atheism is a result of "too much education".

(ftnt. 1:  Penn and Teller, in their HBO series "Bullshit" covered the topic of stress, claiming that it was "bullshit" to say that stress was bad for people.  As much as I like Penn and Teller, they missed the boat on this topic.  Their show only examined the effects of short term stress, similar to that experienced by Zebras.  Short term, infrequent stress does have the effect of briefly sharpening the brain's ability to focus on the moment.  Long term stress is quite another story--one they did not examine.)

(ftnt. 2: The following paragraph was recently taken from the Wikipedia article on the hippocampus:

      "The hippocampus contains high levels of glucocorticoid
   receptors, which make it more vulnerable to long-term stress
   than most other brain areas.  Stress-related steroids affect the
   hippocampus in at least three ways: first, by reducing the
   excitability of some hippocampal neurons; second, by inhibiting
   the genesis of new neurons in the dentate gyrus; third, by
   causing atrophy of dendrites in pyramidal cells of the CA3
   region. There is evidence that humans who have experienced
   severe, long-lasting traumatic stress, show atrophy of the
   hippocampus, more than of other parts of the brain.  These
   effects show up in post-traumatic stress disorder, and they may
   contribute to the hippocampal atrophy reported in schizophrenia
   and severe depression.  A recent study has also revealed atrophy
   as a result of depression, but this can be stopped with
   anti-depressants, even if they are not effective in relieving other
   symptoms.  Hippocampal atrophy is also frequently seen in
   Cushing's syndrome, a disorder caused by high levels of cortisol
   in the bloodstream.  At least some of these effects appear to be
   reversible if the stress is discontinued. There is, however,
   evidence mainly derived from studies using rats that stress
   shortly after birth can affect hippocampal function in ways that
   persist throughout life."


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