From Rat Race to Rat Rut

In the Science Times section of today’s New York Times (August 18, 2009), is a great article about the effects of stress on brain circuitry.  (“Brain is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop” by Natalie Angier.)

Ms. Angier reports a study by Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute in Portugal which described how chronically stressed rats succumbed to habitual and seemingly compulsive routines (like repeatedly pressing a bar for food pellets that they had no intention of eating).  The study found that underlying changes had actually taken place in the brains of these rats, with decision-making and goal-oriented areas of the brain shrinking, and areas related to habit-formation swelling.

As Ms. Angier writes, the stressed rodents “were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race, rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers.”

In other words, the stressed rats got into a rut, dug, in part, by their own brains.

There’s no clear answer to why the stressed brain is so prone to habit formation.  One possibility posited in the article is that the brain in crisis may try to shunt activities to automatic pilot simply to free up space for  bigger questions.  Which, because of the concomitant weakening of the ability to make decisions, the stressed brain just can’t deal with.


This syndrome sounds familiar.   Especially the compulsively pressing the lever part.  (Although it’s a bit hard to imagine any kind of food pellet I wouldn’t eat when under stress.)

Still, after reading the article, I came up with the following list.

Ten Signs That You May Be A Rat in a Rut.   (Or How To Know If Your Brain’s In Stress.)

1.   When you are not sitting at a computer, you check your blackberry every few minutes, even on an underground subway train.

2.   You check your blackberry when stepping out of the subway just to see how long it takes to get service back.  You study the little flashing arrows as you climb the subway stairs, conscious of your breath.

3.   If, after a while, no one’s written, you start to open spam.  Just to clear it out.  Just in case there’s something that’s not spam.  You even open some of the messages for p*n*s enl*rg*m*nt.   (Yes, you’re a woman, but you’re only checking those to see how they managed to get through your spam filter.)

4.   When someone on the phone talks of an article they’ve read, you find it online before they finish their sentence.   (At least you think they haven’t finished their sentence.  You were doing a Google search so you’re not really sure.)

5.   You convince yourself that your interest in Robert Pattinson is a sociological study of our media/youth culture.  (Oh that RPatz!  Oh those Paparazzi!)  You are alternatively amazed at how little and how much is on Google News in the articles posted on Pattinson during the “Last Hour.”

6.   You peruse the sales of online retailers even though you have no money, and (thankfully) no pressing needs.  When you buy something, you congratulate yourself on how much you saved.

7.   You check all the stocks that have gone up dramatically in the last few months but that you did not buy.  (You studiously avoid checking stocks you own, hoping that you can not check those long enough to forget what they were.)

8.   You find yourself reading the same books again and again.  These books are fantasies in which unreal things happen to unreal people, ending happily.  You don’t find the books especially satisfying after the tenth read, but, on the other hand, they are also not disturbing.

9.   Your eyes are sore at night.  When you wake up the next morning, they are still sore.  Even so, you reach for your laptop and/or blackberry first thing.  You decide that a glare screen is the only solution, and shop for one online, looking for sales.

10. Your daughter shouts from the other room at about 9:45 p.m, “are we going to have dinner soon?”   You are working on a computer that has no glare screen.  “Just a minute,” you tell her some time later.

(Wait, what did they say about food pellets?)

If you are more interested in elephants swimming than rats racing, check out 1 Mississippi at the link above or on Amazon.

Explore posts in the same categories: Robert Pattinson, Stress, Uncategorized

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