The mind can go either direction under stress

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

Maria Konnikova (Mastermind) makes an embarrassing confession — well, to science fiction fans:

Until last week, I had never read Dune. I wasn’t even aware that I was supposed to have read Dune. Nor did I know I should be embarrassed at the failure. Consider me properly chastised. Fifteen or so years too late, I have finally finished the book that calls itself — on the cover of the 40th anniversary edition — “science fiction’s supreme masterpiece.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I will say that I was surprised by the accuracy of some of its insights into the human psyche, especially when it comes to our ability to deal with stressful situations.

Paul Atreides and his mother, Jessica, find themselves alone on Arrakis, the inhospitable desert planet, and Paul makes the most of their circumstances:

Instead of panicking at their isolation, he remarks, “I find myself enjoying the quiet here.” This, just before a journey that might well kill them both. His mother doesn’t quite buy it, but she does think to herself, “How the mind gears itself for its environment. The mind can go either direction under stress — toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.”

Decades of psychological research have proven her to be quite correct. The story begins in 1949, with Donald Hebb. (Actually, it begins much earlier, but you need to start somewhere.) Hebb — a student of Wilder Penfield (who found that stimulating different areas of the temporal lobe during open-brain surgery could elicit different memories and sensations) and Karl Lashley (who quested for the engram, or the location for a specific memory, in the brains of rats) — believed that memories are stored by virtue of repeat association: an action causes activity in a cell, which in turn excites a neighboring cell. With each repetition, the connection between these two cells is strengthened, and over time, the cells become associated with one another, so that the activation of one predictably causes the activation of the other (as Carla Shatz memorably described it in 1992, “cells that fire together wire together”). These strengthening connections are now known as Hebbian plasticity, and Hebb’s idea, Hebb’s postulate.

But Hebb goes a step further than actual sensory experience. As he famously wrote, “You need not have an elephant present to think of elephants.” The thought itself can be enough to trigger the type of association that comes with learning. In other words, Paul Atreides need never have been in this specific desert environment in order to react as he does. It is enough for him to have trained his mind for that particular reaction, toward the positive and away from the negative, for the reaction to take place in reality.

Hebb’s work has since been expanded on, refined, and modified, but the general principle remains the same: training matters when it comes to how we learn and what we remember. Habit is king. Hebb’s postulate explains much of the logic behind such phenomena as Pavlovian conditioning (bell plus food equals salivation; fast forward to bell alone equals salivation), Skinnerian conditioning (pull lever, get pellet, learn to pull lever for pellet), fear conditioning and desensitization (think James Watson and poor Little Albert, or James Ledoux and scary snakes), and visual learning (Hubel and Wiesel and monocular deprivation in cats — no visual stimulus during the critical period makes for blind felines). Of course, it’s far more complicated than a single postulate, but the basic process is all about how our brains are trained, by our external and internal environment both, to respond to various situations in a predictable fashion.

Jessica, however, doesn’t just talk about training. She also brings in stress. Here, too, she is correct: where you will see the effect of the synaptic bonds most openly is under highly emotional conditions. There, habit memory — the same type of procedural memory that you use when you do something that you’re skilled at, like drive a car or perform an integral function of your job — will take over, and declarative memory — or that memory that functions when you memorize something or when you’re still learning a new skill — will recede into the background. Nothing like stress to distinguish real habit from what you wish were habit.

In one study, participants who experienced a stress condition — the cold pressor task, where one hand is submerged in freezing (0-2 degrees Celsius) water for three minutes — reverted to habit when performing a forced choice task – whereas those who were not stressed were able to perform admirably on new contingencies. Specifically, habit was chosen at the expense of goal-directed performance when choosing what food to eat: a food that had previously been devalued or one that had not. Stressed individuals chose to eat the same food they had been eating to the point of over-satiation, while non-stressed individuals chose to diversify their food choices.

So, not only does stress inhibit new learning, but it pushes the brain to fall back on those habits of mind that are second nature. Of course, the process can vary from person to person — and it’s important to remember that stress follows an inverted-U function; that is, performance under stressful conditions actually improves up to an optimal point, and then drops off dramatically as more stress is added — but in general, stressful conditions are not the best for trying to assimilate new information. Indeed, chronic stress can reduce the volume of the hippocampus (an area of the brain intimately involved in memory formation and consolidation) and can aversely impact the dopaminergic reward pathways in the brain, so that we overvalue rewarding outcomes and are impaired in our ability to learn about negative outcomes. In other words, were we to land unprepared in the arid desert of Arrakis, we’d be in bad shape, indeed.

Humans are remarkably adaptable. Paul learns quickly to appreciate the positive aspects of his new surroundings, to enjoy the quiet and value the beauty of the new landscape. But he could have just as easily shut down, spiraling into a negative feedback loop and losing his cool entirely. In fact, had he not had prior mental training to dealing with just such stressful contingencies, he would have likely done so; certainly, he would not have been in a position to learn a new positive coping mechanism in the heat of the moment.

The Kindle edition of Dune appears to be on sale for $1.99 at the moment.

My feelings on Dune are mixed, but it’s definitely a thought-provoking novel.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Nobody has time to read everything, not even all the good stuff.

    It seems like having a canon of so-called Great Books would help to manage the problem, but then you get into endless arguments over what gets on the syllabus. Which leads to endless arguments over who gets to write the syllabus.

    Because any good writing that doesn’t get on the list gets shortchanged.

    As for handling stressful situations: it’s partly a skill, but the skill is development of an innate ability. And there’s an inverse of learning resilience: there’s burnout from too much chronic stress.

    It’s certainly useful to handle acute stress well, but to handle chronic stress well is a mistake. Chronic stress is a sign of a situation that ought not to be tolerated. Work the real problem. End whatever is causing the chronic stress, and then move on.

  2. Harper's Notes says:

    The main theme running throughout all of Herbert’s works is what happens when humans undergo tremendous stress. His first novel, if I recall correctly, was ‘Under Pressure’ and the extremely stressful psychological condition of submarine warfare. Keeping in mind that the Joseph B. Rhines Duke Parapsychology Labs was something of a big deal in the early 1960′s and so the idea of something like an unlocking of psychic potential under conditions of extraordinary stress seemed plausible to many people in those times, and ideas about ‘genetic memory’ as well, and so on, in the early 1960′s. (And as always of course, the central struggle in Herbert’s writing of Dune was to present a chaos theory alternative to The Foundation’s statistical mechanics approach to the eternal question of whether history makes great men or great men make history.)

  3. Harper's Notes says:

    Digression, since the blogpost is about memory, in a sense genetic memory if evolutionary psychology. The species-typical repertoire of platformed cognitive and behavioral capacities shaped by selection events over the course of evolutionary time scales. Extinction events erase genetic memories, successful gene frequency amplifications reinforce them.

  4. Kirk says:

    Trite and essentially useless observational pop psychologist analyzes historical works of literature containing then au courant pop psychology…

    Didn’t buy into the crap that Herbert was selling then, don’t buy into it now. Same with Conan Doyle. Let us not forget the trite and utter bullshit that Herbert bought into and was selling about the whole “ecology” thing, or the Conan Doyle wishful thinking about his paranormal spiritualist fantasies that he got into with Houdini and others. Both of these writers were entertaining storytellers, but men with deep insights into the human condition and psyche? LOL… Yeah, pull the other one. That’s the one with bells on…

    Never ceases to amaze me what bullshit will sell, and how little of it is actually backed up by any form of real research and/or actual, y’know… Work. It’s all scholarship, based on ephemeral crap that was based on other ephemeral crap which was based on ephemera and fantasy spun up out of nothing. You go back and look for basis background on Conan Doyle’s Sherlockian methodology, and what you find is… Nothing. I dare say that if you were to interview the guy he claims he based Sherlock on, Dr. Joseph Bell, he’d be shocked to hear what was spun up out of his career and teachings to Conan Doyle.

    There’s zero real substance to any of it, and the amount of mystic credibility granted to both these writers is astonishing. Good God, Herbert is absolute crap once you get past Dune, and I would highly recommend leaving your illusions intact about the quality of his work before going into the derivative works, which seem to have been universally written solely to make money off the one bit of really good writing that Herbert managed in his lifetime.

    I don’t blame either Herbert or Conan Doyle for what others have made out of their works, because both are decent entertainers, but… Dear God, the depth of the bullshit these second-rate minds have come up with. If it were real, we’d be swimming through depths of bovine excrement that covered the world meters deep.

  5. chedolf says:

    “[E]cology might be the next banner for demagogues and would-be-heroes, for the power seekers and others ready to find an adrenaline high in the launching of a new crusade. Our society, after all, operates on guilt, which often serves only to obscure its real workings and to prevent obvious solutions.”
    - Frank Herbert

  6. Harry Jones says:

    I will always love Jorj X. McKie.

  7. Sam J. says:

    “…It’s all scholarship, based on ephemeral crap that was based on other ephemeral crap which was based on ephemera and fantasy spun up out of nothing…”

    Uhh…it’s sci-fi. It’s not real. It’s entertainment.

    I’ve read, I think, everything Herbert wrote and found all of it entertaining. So speak for yourself. I read it when much younger. I expect I wouldn’t care as much for it today but I don’t enjoy fiction as much today of any sort.

  8. Kirk says:

    Read for comprehension, Sam… Comprehension.

    My point was that Herbert wrote fiction, much of it what I have to term “Crap”, outside the one great work he had in him, which was Dune.

    It’s the Marie Konnikova’s of the world I’m talking about, spinning vast dribbling arrays of philosophy up out of entertainment, as though Herbert were some savant thrown up, prophet-like, by some petty godling whose feet she wishes us to worship at.

    Herbert got a lot of what he wrote out of a summer spent tracking dunes, working for geologists. His ideas on ecology and the rest of what he shoehorned into Dune are laughable, things gleaned from the words of others without understanding. The biology of the sandworms is insanely wrong, starting with the idea that anything of that mass could exist outside the ocean depths and the support of water. Not to mention, the idea that a lifeform itself could evolve to encapsulate oceans of water the way he describes. Where did the mass go?

    And, this Konikkova chicklet wants us to see Herbert as some font of philosophical wisdom? When the man himself describes what he wrote as cheap entertainment?

    Sweet babbling baby Jesus, but the amount of disbelief suspension it takes to read Dune without hysterical laughter is borderline impossible. Genetic memory? How the hell does that work, when you could only have the distaff view of things, and that only up to the birth of the successor generation? How’d the Reverend Mothers and Paul get access to the “wisdom of the ages” from the elderly women they describe, if those geneline memories were genetic? After all, how the flat-out f**k would you transmit anything genetically, past the point where the mother gave birth to the kid? All you’d have would be the meanderings of the pre-conception young mothers, not the “wisdom of the ages”.

    Dune, I am afraid, is a work that doesn’t bear much in the way of thinking. Anywhere. It’s a lovely confection, but there isn’t a hell of a lot of meat to it.

    And, again… I’m not saying Herbert isn’t entertaining with it, what I am saying is that anyone going to that well for wisdom is about as bright as a burnt-out lightbulb. You may as well look to Tolkien for the true history of humanity, thinking that was what he was writing.

  9. Sam J. says:

    I comprehend just fine. You said,”…Didn’t buy into the crap that Herbert was selling then, don’t buy into it now…”

    “…Herbert bought into and was selling about the whole “ecology” thing…”

    I disagree. It was entertainment. How many sci-fi stories have hyper drives??? You seen any of those lately??? You don’t like Herbert, fine but don’t damn him for things he didn’t do.

    Even if it is just entertainment using some dubious devices to spin the story it still has a good background that mirrors strategic choices that have to be made ion real life.

  10. Kirk says:

    WTF, Sam? Are you illiterate, or something?

    Seriously–READ what I said, not what you think I said. You seem to think I’m criticizing Herbert, when I’m actually criticizing the idiots reading profundity into the entertainment he wrote. Can you grasp that point, or are you going to keep trying to defend Herbert as some sort of font of wisdom and scientific knowledge?

    Which is not the argument made, at all. You’re not even missing the point–You’re making up your own and arguing its merits with some straw man you’re making up out of whole cloth.

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