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Illusion of Control Affects Response to Adverse Situations

  • Faith Lapidus

Some people handle stress better than others. Their secret, according to University of Colorado at Boulder psychologist Steven Maier, is the feeling of control.

He explains that the initial response to an adverse situation or emergency -- to fight or flee -- is regulated by the lower, primitive parts of our brain. But if the situation is controllable, the more advanced, higher brain centers take over. "These cortical areas send projections, nerve cells, down to these lower areas and actually inhibit them. It's as if this higher executive control center says, 'Ah-hah! Look, you can cope with this event behaviorally; you don't have to get so excited down there in the brain stem. Cool it down there.'"

And that calming effect is lasting. Maier, who is co-director of the university's Center for Neuroscience, says long after that positive event, the brain acts as if it has control, even in situations where it doesn't. "Initial experiences where you do have control actually inoculate you and make you resilient in the face of later traumas where in fact you have no control." He says that's due to a change in the prefrontal cortex, the brain's executive control center. "Those initial experiences alter this frontal cortical circuitry in such a way that even though in the later experience you actually don't have any control, still, this emergency circuitry is damped and this higher control center is now becoming activated."

There are programs that offer opportunities to alter the 'cortical circuitry' in a positive way. Maier, points to rehabilitation programs like Outward Bound, for troubled teens. "They are encountering negative circumstances, very negative circumstances, but it's structured in a way that they exert mastery and control over these things."

Maier says it's very important for the development of organisms, including human organisms, to encounter negative events. "They're going to encounter them sooner or later in life," he observes, "they have to learn how to deal with them."

Steven Maier is continuing his research, which could lead to better treatment of disorders like post-traumatic stress and depression. Results of his team's work appear in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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