When I was a kid, the great dream was to one day grow up and become President of the United States of America. Little did we realize the stress inherent in the job as inferred by this open letter from Alice Walker to our new president-elect. She apparently realizes, much like working neuroscientists, that if you’re in the Chief Executive business, first and foremost, you’re in the brain change business. Your job is to influence and change the brains of the legislature, opinion-makers, the American people and assorted international leaders. However, when you agree to head up arguably the most powerful nation in the free world, by the end of your first or second term, your brain is the one considerably changed – most often for the worse.
Protection or Damage?
There have been numerous scientific studies showing how stress serves a growth and protective function … up to a point. Beyond that point, which few of us are easily able to identify, good stress turns into damaging allostatic load – the term for stress that wreaks havoc on the body and brain. Before he knows it, the fine kettle of fish a President has aspired to since childhood, is at a full, roiling boil; suddenly he finds himself sitting inextricably, stinking and sweating, right in the middle of national and global events over which he has surprisingly little real control. If prior national and international events haven’t already done so, a stressor like the threat of the complete collapse of the American financial system might reasonably be expected to toss a President’s brain over onto the damaging side of the allostatic line.
J. Douglas Bremner, a neuropsychiatrist who conducted extensive studies on stress and brain damage at Yale University, and Robert Scaer, M.D., author of The Body Bears the Burden, detail some of the many ways that stress becomes the enemy of intelligence. Stressors are never static, and as they mount, functional memory becomes increasingly impaired. It might become difficult, for example, to show up in public and speak to the nation or the press extemporaneously, or to conduct policy meetings of depth and duration, or keep track of the deadline for issuing final Executive Orders. Past traumatic memories can begin to intrude into present-moment activities, and varying degrees of dissociation can interrupt and confound clear thinking. The difference between millions and billions begins to blur. Even your bowels can be negatively impacted, as Michael Gershon so eloquently argues in The Second Brain, turning your gut instincts into untrustworthy allies.
Once Burned, Twice Shy
Of course, not all brains are susceptible to damaging allostatic load in equal measure. One man’s neural Armageddon is another man’s Battle of Issus. There is growing evidence, however, that a prior history of trauma leaves one more susceptible and less resilient to later stressors. Insurance companies and risk managers, for example, know that if you crash one jet fighter, you’re significantly more likely to crash another, and the most prudent among them act accordingly.
What else happens, when a good brain goes bad? Dan Siegel, a neuroscientist at UCLA, might argue that when a President first takes office his brain and thought processes are most likely as flexible, adaptable, coherent, energized and stable as they are ever likely to be. As pressures mount, the opposite of these things begins to take hold. Stress-generated neurotoxins begin to affect actual connections in the brain, diminishing neuron numbers and disintegrating nerve fibers used to connect say, the prefrontal cortex with the fight-or-flight-controlling limbic structures. These connections are critical for so-called Executive Function.
Executing Executive Function
According to the Executive Function Fact Sheet published by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, prefrontal connections are responsible for things like: making plans and effectively executing them in a timely manner; keeping track of more than one thing at a time; meaningfully engaging in group discussions; effectively evaluating your own and others’ ideas; being able to ask for help and seeking more information when we need it. When Executive Function becomes compromised, we are very likely to have trouble comprehending how much time a project will take. We struggle to tell a story coherently, and have trouble communicating details in an organized, sequential manner. We also demonstrate difficulty in memorizing things or retrieving information from memory. We often exhibit an inability to generate ideas independently, and have difficulty retaining information while doing something with it – for example, remembering a budget item while eliminating it.
Home on the Range
Since the brain is an associative organ, an environment that the brain associates with stress – let’s say Washington, D.C. or The White House – could become a place to avoid as much as possible. A restful ranch out in Boondock, Texas might very well become a preferred place to spend nearly 500 vacation days. As the stress continues to mount – say, the stress of large populations of people who used to like you, now liking you least of anyone who’s ever held the office – a President’s capacity for dealing with complexity might very likely become seriously compromised.
This decline of neural flexibility, adaptability, coherence, energy and stability is the primary reason, I think, that so many Presidencies in recent years have turned out so poorly at the end. If you hadn’t suffered significant damage before running for office – and many of my friends think you have to be brain damaged to even want that job in the first place – by the conclusion of his term, a President’s brain has very likely suffered significant neural damage. To test my theory, pre and post-presidency brain scans would be interesting to compare, wouldn’t they?
Thankfully, four or eight years eventually pass, but unfortunately, as we’re able to infer based on the evidence from the recent expired Presidential terms, extensive damage appears to have been done over the duration. Hopefully, Alice Walker’s prayer will put all of us on notice to take supremely good care of each of our brains, including our childrens’ and our newly-elected Chief Executive’s.