Upper Brain and Lower Brain

In previous posts on #WomenRising, I have talked about the disconnect – in our culture – between the true abilities of women, and the perceptions of those abilities among much of the population and in popular media. Simply put, women are generally not given credit for the superior skills that many of them have. This chasm in ‘conventional wisdom’, between fact and perception, has major consequences across all walks of life. To cite just one: the gross disparity in pay levels for equal work, and the absurd rationales put forward to justify those disparities.


I will say more in future posts about the clear economic consequences of this disconnect. I do believe strongly that standard economic measures, such as GDP growth, are sharply curtailed by failure to recognize the full potentials of women across all careers. There is simply no way that an economy can perform at full potential for its citizens under the currently favored view – that white men must be the leaders and decision makers for society, and all others must be suppressed or shunned altogether.


In this article, I want to focus on the personal costs of such suppression, and the consequences of the underlying stresses that women endure. The constant suppression of full potentials exerts major stresses on affected individuals, in a variety of ways. Those stresses have very significant harmful effects on brain function and long-term performance, and even health outcomes. The net effect is to amplify the disconnect described above. The systematic denial of true abilities in the workplace (and elsewhere) has a profoundly negative effect on outcomes that would otherwise drive economic and social wellbeing.


My perspectives are based in part on recent, groundbreaking neuroscience research by Professor Amy Arnsten and colleagues at Yale. Their work shows that even acute episodes of major stress can effectively disable the ‘executive’ or higher cognitive functions of the brain, and initiate a downward spiral of harmful effects that can be catastrophic in severe cases. These types of stresses are precisely what women, and others who are suppressed in the workplace and in our culture, experience on a daily basis.


I have linked below a recent article from Scientific American by Drs. Arnsten et al.; the links are to a public-access version of the article, available from NIH and the National Library of Medicine.


I want to focus on the key illustration from the article (Figure 1), which depicts the major findings and the key take-home lessons. We will examine that figure (below) in enough detail to understand the main effects on human wellbeing.





Notice that two brains are depicted – let’s call them the Upper Brain (top panel) and the Lower Brain. The Upper Brain represents normal, healthy cognitive and emotional function. Under these conditions, the prefrontal cortical areas (blue in the upper panel) are serving their normal functions – reasoning from facts, working to drive rational responses and plan future actions. These ‘executive functions’ are the foundation of success for any working professional, one who deals with complex knowledge and must make reasoned decisions among multiple options. In short, the executive functions are key to intelligent behavior, and the brain in the upper panel is working correctly to make those intelligent choices.


By contrast, the Lower Brain in the bottom panel is subject to acute and/or chronic stress, at levels that are high enough to activate a key subcortical structure called the amygdala (small yellow structure in lower center of each panel). I will say more about the details of amygdala function and its evolutionary roles in future posts. But for present purposes, the amygdala plays a key role in activating alarm responses when danger is present – by triggering the autonomic response, often referred to as ‘fight or flight’. A major effect of this response is to actively inhibit function of the frontal lobes, as shown in the figure inset at lower right, by weakening the connections between neurons through synaptic actions of increased dopamine (DA) and norepinephrine (NE) secretions. The neurons of executive centers are thereby effectively uncoupled from each other, and normal, rational decision making is hindered or shut down.


In the world of our origins, where predators lurked and dangers could threaten at any moment, such responses were a key to survival. And that explains their primacy in our brain circuitry. In a life-threatening crisis, there simply is no time to think things through, and immediate action is imperative.


But in the normal, workday world of our society, these alarm responses are much more likely to be triggered by stresses that are not life-threatening. Such triggering is therefore a form of ‘false alarm’. The consequences of such responses to cognitive brain functions are clearly harmful, inhibiting any processes requiring complex analysis or decisions. It is simply not possible to make good use of working memory, or carefully considered executive decisions, while under heavy acute stress.


With the seminal work of Arnsten et al., these findings should take center stage in our thinking about how to function effectively. In environments where complex cognitive processing is required, the implications are profound, to say the least. And for purposes of this article, one of the most critical conclusions to draw is that those who actively intimidate others, in the workplace, are doing great harm to their performance. Conversely, those who find themselves in privileged positions in the workplace are least likely to be subject to the harmful effects of such stress.


It follows that, for effective performance in any workplace, the privileged positions must be held by those who actually deploy the most effective cognitive skills. As we have discussed on these pages, women are far more likely to possess those critical cognitive skills than they are to hold the privileged positions. The mismatch is certain to adversely affect economic performance, both at the micro- and macro-economic levels. Even more perversely, those who hold the privileged positions, but lack superior cognitive skills, are extremely likely to exert stressful impacts on others, under their supervision, who DO have those skills. The net effect, in such cases, is to adversely impact the performance of the most capable, in addition to failing in their own right to perform at high cognitive levels. The result is a formula for sluggish, even disastrous performance at the group or company level in the workplace. Played out on a macroeconomic scale, the harmful impacts are manifestly and profoundly negative.


Stress is a killer in modern society. As we have discussed here at #WomenRising, its impacts fall most heavily on women in our patriarchal system. But the harm is felt by all in our society, as the foregoing discussion indicates. We have to do better, and we can – but only if we understand how to live in our Upper Brains, and are guided by principles that make sense in the real world.


Presented and disscussed by @textifyer59








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