It's time to face the facts: as the earth is heating up with resultant changes in the atmosphere and problems in the environment, there also is an increasing incidence of people's brains becoming overexcited in the areas associated with self-control. This may well be deemed an epidemic of lobal warming (a term I've coined).
I'm referring to biological processes in the brain causing neurological, emotional, and behavioral changes that make people more impulsive, more aggressive, and less able to tolerate frustration and delay gratification.
We live in an overstimulating environment. Digital media, global interconnection, loss of privacy, addiction to electronics, and the general acceleration in demands, pressure, and stress are causing generalized increases in over-arousal-the internal state of fight-or-flight response, an instinctive survival response that can be hijacked to a dangerous destination where the brain lives in a perceived state of continual threat. When the brain and nervous system habituate to this state for prolonged periods, the result is extreme stress, trauma, unhappiness, and progressive deterioration in health and functioning.
How does one calm an overexcited brain? And how does a brain keep calm, focused, and oriented toward "good" decisions in the face of temptation?
The work of Dr. Walter Mischel and his colleagues sheds important light on t his issue. Mischel is a professor of psychology at Columbia University; he has done seminal work for decades in the field of behavioral self-control, and he has made major contributions in the areas of social psychology and personality assessment. Professor Mischel has recently published a book entitled, The Marshmallow Test (2014). This book chronicles his original research at Stanford University with children's ability to delay gratification, as well as decades of follow-up research by Mischel and his colleagues.
In his pioneering studies in the 1970's, Mischel set up a series of experiments with young children at the Stanford University renowned Bing Nursery and Child Development Center. Basically, children as young as four years old were set up individually in a room (with a one-way observation glass) at a table with one marshmallow on one side and two marshmallows on the other side. Each child had a play period during which they got to know the examiner. Then, the examiner told the child that he could have the one marshmallow whenever he wanted, but that if he waited until the examiner returned to the room, he could have the two marshmallows. The child had the options of eating the one marshmallow, ringing the bell for the examiner to return, or waiting for the examiner to return (usually about eleven minutes later). Only by waiting for the examiner to return could the child earn the two marshmallows.
This was one of numerous experiments in children's patterns and abilities to delay gratification; it became known as the Marshmallow Test. Over the years, Mischel and his colleagues developed a series of strategies to determine how children best delayed immediate gratification and some theories about how the brain accomplishes this valuable capacity.
Follow-up longitudinal studies into the original subjects' adulthoods showed clear correlations between the ability to delay gratification during the experiments (i.e., wait and earn the two marshmallows) and successful outcomes later in life. Longitudinal studies of children who participated in the Stanford experiments between 1968-1974 followed them through 2010 into their 40's, collecting information on their occupational, marital, physical, financial, and mental health status.
In their adult lives, preschoolers who delayed gratification longer on the Marshmallow Test exhibited more self-control in frustrating situations; yielded less to temptation; were less distractible when trying to concentrate; were more intelligent, self-reliant, and confident, and trusted more in their own judgment. When under stress, they were less likely to go to pieces as much as the low delayers did. They thought ahead and planned more, and were more able to pursue their goals. When the SAT scores of children with the shortest delay times (bottom third) were compared with longer gratification delay times (top third) the overall differences in their scores favored the longer gratification delay children by 210 points.
Mischel and his colleagues also studied the interactive effects of the ability to delay gratification on the mental and physical health of people they categorized as "rejection-sensitive (RS)." High RS people tend to be overly sensitive, defensive, and to ruminate obsessively about perceived or actual rejection. Mischel found that while high RS attributes tended to detract from satisfying ad lasting interpersonal relationships, those high RS people who could delay gratification fared much better on multiple outcome measures of health and wellness.
Mischel postulated that the brain has two complementary but opposing mechanisms, which he labeled the "hot thinking system" and the "cool thinking system." Hot thinking focuses on sensory and stimulus appeal and excites the reward centers in the substructures of the brain's limbic system, particularly the amygdala. Cool thinking generates and depends upon activity in the prefrontal cortex, the (more recently developed evolutionarily) part of the brain that manages planning, analysis, inhibition, and decision-making. Ideally, these systems work in tandem: hot thinking takes the lead to drive motivation, heightened activity, and goal acquisition; cool thinking predominates when calculation, planning, and deferment of gratification are necessary. According to Mischel, "the hot system gives us the emotions and zest that make life interesting. It allows automatic judgments and decisions that can save your life by causing you to hit the car brakes in time to avoid a collision, or attract you intuitively to a person or career path that richly rewards you as the future unfolds. However, the hot system can also get you into trouble, causing capitulation to temptations that lead to terrible consequences, impulsive or fear-driven decisions triggered from stereotypes or minimal information. It can cause well-intentioned policemen to shoot too quickly at innocent but suspicious-looking strangers.
"The hot system is activated by the lure or perception of immediate rewards. It is driven by the automatic, reflexive, unconscious limbic system, which pays little attention to delayed consequences. It wants what it wants immediately and steeply reduces or ‘discounts' the value of rewards that are delayed.
"In contrast, delayed rewards activate the cool system: the slower-to-respond but thoughtful, rational, problem-solving areas of the brain's prefrontal cortex that make us distinctively human and able to consider long-term consequences."
Cool system thinking allows us to consider consequences, evaluate longer-term results, and subjugate immediate desires and temptations to planning and rational analysis. What drives the cool system is the prefrontal cortex, which enables attention control, imagination, thinking, and problem-solving in the pursuit of longer-term goals.
Mischel and his colleagues observed and questioned the children about their feelings and thought processes when confronting the marshmallows. They also devised and tested cognitive strategies to help children delay gratification. They made some interesting discoveries about what enabled children to wait-findings that have been confirmed in the ensuing decades by modern advances in brain imaging technology that show which parts of the brain become activated (appropriately or not) in various situations of decision-making, motor response, stimulus excitation and impulse gratification. In the language of neuroscience, decisions are labeled GO versus NO GO.
Although children (and people in general) vary in their innate tendencies to delay versus "go for it," and though the delay of gratification is a fundamental part of self-control that unfolds as a developmental process, Mischel found that certain cognitive strategies clearly helped the children who could delay gratification. Interestingly, he found both that children invented these strategies spontaneously and that successful delay strategies could be taught and would transfer later to other situations involving temptation.
I highly recommend Mischel's book, The Marshmallow Test. I am biased and invested in this type of work. My own research in the 1970's drew heavily on the work of Mischel and others in the field of behavioral self-control. To this day, I rely upon that body of accumulated research and decades of clinical experience to help my patients and others improve brain functioning and change their behaviors. My colleagues and I also do brain imaging studies involving GO versus NO GO decision making where we can observe and record what lobes and substructures of the brain become activated or deactivated during challenge situations.
At the age of 86, Dr. Mischel is still a contributing leader in the field of psychology and self-control. He is sometimes referred to as the father of "Bubbameister psychology" for his pithy observation that "researchers try to prove what grandmothers already know." (Bubbameister is Yiddish for stories a grandmother tells.)
However, my work has focused for decades on aspects of neuropsychology surprisingly ignored by many in the field, including Mischel. That is the burgeoning field of EEG neurofeedback brain training, specifically applied to developing self-control. Through millions of training sessions collectively, my colleagues and I have found that better self-control, neuronal regulation, and development and integration of hot and cool brain systems occurs across populations widely varying in age, condition, and genetic endowments and limitations. These results are attributable to the natural plasticity of the brain, giving it the ability to perceive, adjust, regulate, and adapt when given relevant feedback and information about its own neural network processes.
Hot thinking and cool thinking systems are general metaphors for complex brain behaviors that combine internal states with environmental learning. Although cognitive skills and strategies can be learned and superimposed upon internal states, their efficacy is greatly dependent upon the brain's ability to sense and regulate its own "thermostat." Any amount of "good driving" will ultimately have to contend with a faulty alternator in the car's engine. Fortunately this can be repaired and/or "tuned up" with training via EEG neurofeedback.
Though certain brain structures have been identified as the centers of hot and cool thinking (i.e., amygdala and cingulate gyrus for hot thinking and prefrontal cortex for cool thinking), it is not simply a matter of "targeting" these structures. Brain activity and interactions are far more complex and interdependent. Suffice it to say that the rampant incidence of overactive brain arousal-lobal warming, per se-can be normalized and brought under sustainable control in a matter of several dozen hours of training. The results of these non-pharmaceutical efforts have proved enduring and catalyzing to generalizable improved functioning and well-being.
The evidence from my decades of practice suggests that the frequency of "hot system dysfunction" (lobal warming) is predominant and that cognitive strategies alone are insufficient and ineffective in mitigating the internal climate change that predisposes people toward rash behavior and personal self-management problems (such as anxiety and insomnia). Even people with adequate prefrontal executive control resources become depleted by the excessive activity that launches and keeps them in fight-or-flight mode. Global warming does not only deplete resources and precipitate crises: it topples the general and delicate balance of the intricate ecosystem. Similarly, lobal warming erodes general brain health and the capacity of the organism to rebound and thrive. Thus, I spend much of my therapeutic time and effort getting people's brains to calm down enough to facilitate development, compensation, and balance.
In addition to brainwave training, there are methods of arresting and eliminating the traumas and negative emotions that contribute to the lobal warming and overheating of individuals and communities. These methods include and rely upon systematic and scientific interventions to "deprogram" the brain's connections between triggering thoughts and stimuli and "hot" emotions that drive the fight-or-flight response. Some of these methods-in particular, Thought Field Therapy-are so powerful and effective that a single treatment (which takes only minutes) can break the connection between a thought or perceptual stimulus and an adrenalin, lobal-boiling reaction that has been in place for years.
Imagine the possibilities for restoring sustainable health and sanity to suffering individuals and conflicting communities!
It is not only our physical and planetary environment that is increasingly at risk. It is also our individual souls and social selves. No doubt, fossil fuels harm the environment-and primitive and outdated brain responses harm the internal landscape that determines the quality of our lives and the directions of our behavior.
The debate over global warming and climate change continues with increasing urgency as the evidence mounts and episodes of destructive events show portentous glimpses of the future. It is not good enough for each of us to reduce our carbon imprint. Although this no doubt helps-and is an effective move toward individual responsibility and conscious living-we need a social and political policy to reduce harmful environmental effects and regain a path of harmonious and healthful compatibility with our planet. We need leaders and policy makers to institute some governmental regulation to turn the tide (perhaps not literally, but global warming is increasing ocean temperatures and affecting tidal rhythms). Similarly, we need leaders and policy makers to govern mental regulation-not with invasion of privacy and oversight of thoughts, but with policies that will enable people from their childhood forward to reduce their own lobal warming, thereby reducing individual and collective proclivities toward violence, racism and prejudice, frustration intolerance, poor productivity, and many varieties of irresponsible and insensitive behavior.
As a neuropsychologist and resident of planet Earth for many decades, it's my observation that much conflict and misery that people endure individually, socially, and geopolitically could be greatly minimized and even eliminated if citizens and leaders could have better functioning, more regulated and compassionate brains. We have an epidemic of lobal (as well as global) warming. People's hemispheres are overheating with overreaching hot systems. The prefrontal caps of executive function, cool thinking, and consequential planning are melting. As a result, they act out, damaging themselves, others, and the community environment.
I think the Dalai Lama has it right: compassion and inner peace should be the goals and solutions to individual and collective unrest. For the time being, I'm doing my part, healing one brain at a time.