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How the physical and emotional affects of life-altering events can affect our brainpower

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Polar ice caps reached the brink of disappearing in 1992, and Tennessee lost more than 25 percent of its white snow. There is no fault yet unknown, but the seeds of a loss of cognitive ability are already showing.

The idea that we can maximize our brain power by the intensity of our action may seem counterintuitive. Yet a paper by scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center estimates that our emotional response to events equates with 100 percent of our brain capacity for thought, despite emotional pain.

In other words, we can not only withstand psychological discomfort, but also view it as just a part of our ability to perform. Think about the extreme physical pain we experience on a daily basis: hiccups, cracked ribs, throbbing pain, the tearful pain when our best friend leaves. And yet, we can continue to perform regardless of what we experience. (Of course, this strategy might work better if the situation were life and death — or at least imminent death.)

On the other hand, if the same conditions that make our experience of pain present do not entail actual impact on how we perform, their mere presence seems to affect our performance. Are the combination of physical pain and experience of pain not proportionate to the ultimate outcome?

The answer seems to be yes, when the physical and emotional effects of a given event cause repeated stress, fear, or anxiety. Scientists now study stress, fear, anxiety, and self-perceived distress as indicators of neural function. The Rochester scientists found that variations in electrical activity, the amount of information processed, and the number of complex systems are all related to the brain’s response to stress and anxiety.

“When you experience feeling overwhelmed or anxious, for example, you’re activating a cascade of brain systems that underlie cognitive processing, and that in turn will likely impact the number of systems you perceive and react to as you function,” said Yale University Professor Lori Anderson.

The duration of a state of stress or anxiety is another factor that is related to how mentally active we feel — and therefore how smart we feel. People who are constantly distracted, for example, feel far less smart than those who can discern when to pay attention to what’s around them.

Experiencing high levels of stress also affects our cognitive ability to process information. Albert Einstein, who died in 1955, may have been one of the smartest humans ever, but he also was an intellectual dynamo who had to perform as a passenger. The financial crisis of the early 1980s was one of the most emotionally devastating experiences in American history. Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted to avoid creating economic stress, had no choice but to create panic. This prolonged feeling of stress led to a lack of creativity and brain cells. The Princeton-New York and UNC-Carolina psychology professors Nick Day and Mark L. Lobert, in their book Going for the Glory, found that those who struggled to survive the Depression had lost more neurons per minute.

The study findings back up Albert Einstein’s conclusions. Despite the effort, you simply cannot solve problems and be smart.

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