Let me count the ways.
But first, a confession: I watch way more TV than I really want to. Or that is good for me. We just bought an Apple TV wireless router and now our TV is magically connected to every iPad, satellite signal and computer in the house. We can stream Netflix, watch Dish, cruise Hulu, run HBOgo, download YouTubes and Vudus and Vimeos and do any of a dozen other nightly video operations (According to the Wall St. Journal, an iPad is all the TV I really need!).
My night life has become one great big, never-ending distraction. And as David Devilbliss and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin have shown, distractions, whether from too much TV or from other life stressors, signify the likelihood of fragmented connections in my prefrontal cortex and in my hippocampus, the seat of learning and memory. In my case, what this fragmentation does is prevent me from sticking with projects for very long without becoming bored or anxious. It makes me have to work really hard to go into subjects deeply for extended periods. I have to use way more energy to make cognitive connections – to think about things – than your average bear.
The Real Work of Blogging
Take this blog for example. Each column averages about 800 words. I write the first draft in four or five 200-or-less word sessions. After each short session, I have to stop. My neural network literally fragments, starts thinking about a dozen different things at once and stops generating words. I then need to pick up the thread on a different day. Then after the first 800 word draft is done, I do the first edit. Then on another day, I’ll edit once again. Then, if time permits, I’ll edit again. Some of the blogs I have edited weeks after I’ve actually published them, updating links with newer studies, correcting grammar or changing the images I’ve included. A stressed blogger’s work is never done.
So, one way stress makes me stupid is by fragmenting my neural connections which makes me easily distracted. Much like a child or a puppy.
Lost and Alone in Stupid Valley
But there’s another way stress makes me stupid. It makes me easily emotionally upset. And when I’m emotionally upset I frequently narrow my focus from the forest to the teeniest hole a woodpecker has pecked in the massive cedar tree outside our house, which I’m now sure will fall on me while I’m trying to sleep through the next windstorm. In other words, I really narrow and distort present-moment reality, mostly forgetting both Buddha’s and my mother’s repeated wisdom-offering in response to trying events: this too shall pass.
Stress also makes me more prejudiced and biased in my worldview. And in a vicious circle, being the recipient of bias and prejudice makes me feel even more stressed. There’s a famous experiment that was conducted by Jane Elliot, a third grade teacher in Iowa, shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. To help her third graders understand prejudice, Jane came in one day and announced that blue-eyed kids were superior to brown-eyed kids. The brown-eyed kids would have to sit separately in the room and wear identifying cloth collars. Needless to say, that profoundly changed the relationship dynamics in the room. Friends were now divided as superior and inferior, and they were treated as such.
The next day, Jane came in and announced that she got the information wrong: it was the brown-eyed kids who were superior. The brown-eyed kids took the collars off, and with great joyous relief, put them on the blue-eyed kids. Jane Elliot was astonished at how quickly third graders could turn into nasty, vicious, prejudiced thugs. “Friendships seemed to dissolve instantly, as brown-eyed kids now taunted their blue-eyed former friends…. It was ghastly.” Not only that, but the “inferior” kids’ reading scores precipitously plummeted. Later, when the experiment was over, everyone’s score went up and stayed up. But here’s even better news: decades later the third graders in Jane Elliot’s class remembered how it felt to be prejudiced against and actively worked against it in their adult lives. It was a lesson learned and never forgotten and continues to be lived daily nearly 35 years later by those third graders. This is a prime example of stress imposed and then relieved to great good results.
Stressed, Dumb and Blind
The truth is I could be okay with the fact that stress makes me stupid. What mostly I am NOT okay with however, is the fact that I go through my days pretty unconscious about just how stressed I am. Too often I find out after the fact – like when I almost cut my finger off last month, or I get a traffic ticket, or I’ve gained three pounds when I wasn’t vigilantly watching what my hands were putting in my mouth. What I need is an early-warning stress device, something that will notify me immediately when eustress (good stress) has crossed over the hump and turned into nasty, allostatic load.
There are practices, that can help remedy the effects of stress on neural fragmentation and intelligent awareness. Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction (MBSR) is one such practice. One unfortunate requirement for implementing such a practice and staying with it, is that I need to have an established modicum of non-fragmentation already operating in my brain. Without that baseline, I’m kind of in a double bind. One way I’ve tried to manage this bind is to do my MBSR … on the run. Which, interestingly, is championed by expert mediation teacher, Sakyong Mipham in his book, Running with the Mind of Meditation. Only I walk my run. It’s easier on my knees and ankles and I have Dr. Mike Evans in my corner with The One Bit of Preventive Medicine he gives all his patients.
So, while stress makes me stupid, fortunately it isn’t a constant and doesn’t have everlasting staying power. While so far, I do.