Lit review 1: The Neural Basis of Resilience

To kick off my lit review I have found an amazing treasure trove of readings commissioned by the UK Government’s Foresight Project, Mental Capital and Wellbeing.  Check it out for yourself here!  I am super excited about going through them all but the quantity is a bit overwhelming.  I suppose I will just have to go through them one at a time…

The one I am starting with (random choice) is ‘State-of-Science Review: E7 The Neural Basis or Resilience’ (Elliott, Sahakian & Charney, 2008).

In this review the authors have identified interacting factors which impact upon a persons resilience or ability to successfully adapt and function in the face of stress or trauma.  These are; Cognitive psychology, Neurochemistry, Brain structure and function and, Genetic factors.  My main focus is on the psychological factors but with a healthy interest in the others.

Psychological factors:  The authors discuss three psychological constructs related to resilient responses to stress and trauma:  Positive affectivity, Cognitive flexibility and, Coping strategies.

  1. Positive affectivity or optimism:  Basically are you a cup half full or half empty person?  How about when you are performing a task with no feedback?  Do you automatically think you are doing a good job or a bad job?  People with positive affectivity tend towards the positive, effectively mitigating some of the effects of stress or trauma.  “A bias towards sad information may influence vulnerability to, and persistence of, depression; while a bias towards happy information… may confer resilience” (p.7).
  2. Cognitive flexibility:  “The salient aspect of cognitive flexibility is the ability to reinterpret an adverse event to find meaning or opportunity” (p.4).  My thoughts…  There has been a lot of talk recently in education and educational research, on stories.  Telling our stories and having our voices heard.  This was my first thought when I read about cognitive flexibility as a psychological factor of resilience.  We all have multiple stories, birth stories, the story of how your parents met, the story of your first day of school, your first day of work, the list is endless.  When we tell our stories, we are showcasing how we feel about these events, good, bad, happy, sad, angry.  It is clear by the details we include and those we leave out, the words we choose, and the energy with which we present our stories.  If it is true that stories are connected to feelings then could you by changing the story, change the feelings?  I don’t mean make up a fictional story, but re-look at the event like a detective.  Look at the facts and then choose what elements you want to value and thus emphasise.  The key is to make a choice and to believe that you have the power to do so.  I am sure someone has already thought of this idea and it probably has an awesome name like reframing or something.  If you know, let me know in the comments 🙂
  3. Coping strategies:  This involves taking on a problem-solving approach to stressful situations and allows people to feel a sense of control over their situation combating a sense of ‘learned helplessness’.   Religious coping and social support were also included in this area.  My thoughts…  This is the part I would like to learn more about.  What are the other coping strategies?  I have found a few here at  The Mental Health Foundation Of New Zealand website but I know there must be more.

Bits that stood out to me:  After reading the review (all 8 pages!) I have a greater understanding of how the different factors interact to make one person vulnerable to stress and trauma while another is resilient.  While my focus is always going to be on psychological factors, neurochemistry, brain structure and function and, genetic factors are equally significant and can’t be ignored.  If the goal is to be able to ‘teach’ people resilience then all factors need to be taken into account.  The authors conclude the review by stating “Psychological constructs such as cognitive reserve, cognitive flexibility and coping strategies may depend on top-down control of amygdala function by prefrontal regions [Brain function and structure].  It may, therefore, be possible to strengthen resilience through pharmacological and non-pharmacological means, including cognitive behavioural or other psychological therapies and education” (p.8).

Why is this important for Education?  We don’t know what education will look like 100 years from now or even 10 years from now.  We don’t know what employment opportunities there will be for our children or even what knowledge will be considered important.  With so much of our knowledge now being stored out of our brains in devices or on the internet what do we consider important enough to learn now and in the future?  I believe the answer lies in dispositions, like resilience.  The world is a complicated place.  It is in no way fair or even logical a lot of the time.  Being resilient in the face of adversity allows us to be successful in spite of this.  No ones life will be without tragedy or struggle or pain but, if we as teachers, parents, concerned citizens could somehow inoculate our children against the adverse affects of stress and trauma, wouldn’t we?

How does this relate to Early Childhood Education?  If we can understand why some people are resilient and others vulnerable to stress/ trauma then that is the first step toward developing resilience or even teaching resilience as part of our curriculum.

Ideas for my reasearch:   Can resilience be taught?

Let me know your thoughts below.  Do you have any coping strategies you use when facing stress?

Image credit: Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand

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2 thoughts on “Lit review 1: The Neural Basis of Resilience

  1. Hi Jessica
    I was interested to read your post about leaning stories and how they can be used after your learning today at the ELP learning stories event. This led me to looking on your page. I hope that’s ok. You sound very passionate and I thought you might like to know about a book I’ve just begun reading with your discussions about resilience. I purchased this through the book depository. Self-Reg by Dr Stuart Shankar published in 2016.
    Thanks for sharing your ideas with us on the ece site.
    Sonia

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