“Every characteristic absence of spirituality, every piece of common vulgarity, is due to an inability to resist a stimulus.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Thursday morning I got up while it was still dark, put the dogs on the back porch, and mindlessly forgot to close the sliding door behind me. My short term memory ain’t what it used to be. Not unexpectedly, Archie Farchie, our long-haired, smushy-faced kitty snuck out. Fortunately, it was foggy and cold and he walked around to the kitchen door and immediately began pounding on it for me to let him back in before any owls, eagles or coyotes got a scent of him.
Donald Trump was born 43 days before me. We both worked as builders. But doing the nail-hammering, lumber-carrying work of building single-family houses out in the country is somewhat different than sitting in an office and orchestrating the building of Manhattan skyscrapers. My guess would be Manhattan building from behind a desk is not only more stressful, but provides fewer opportunities for beneficially metabolizing and discharging stress hormones. As a result, I’m guessing my current short-term memory challenges are nothing compared to Donald Trump’s, even though he has an army of cabinet, press and personal secretaries. I suspect we’ll soon find out.
I’m also guessing being a semi-retired neuroscience blogger living on an offshore island is pretty much stress-free compared to living in urban centers with hostile media and Secret Service Agents around to constantly neuroceptively underscore how dangerous life is for you as the leader of the free world. If you look at before & after photos of any president, you can see how the stress has physically adversely impacted their outside appearance. What we can’t readily see is how it’s impacted their inside appearance – their brains and other somatic systems. But neural networks unraveling leave Twitter clues.
Here are a few ways (of literally hundreds) that we know Chronic, Unpredictable, Toxic Stress (CUTS) – the inevitable byproduct of any presidency – adversely impacts neurobiology, especially the human heart:
Compromised Executive Function
Of the dozen or so elements that make up Executive Function – impulse control, wise thinking, emotional equanimity – probably the one that a world leader needs most is … the ability to strategically handle global complexity and clearly see the big picture.
Frequently, people who have trouble controlling emotional outbursts also have difficulty imagining and thinking in big picture scenarios. They might have little ability to see all the things that make America less than great, like the expanding circles of suffering that result when you persecute minorities or the disabled or underpay large segments of the work force.
Complex thinking involves not only Theory of Mind – the ability to know and accommodate thinking that is different from yours – but also Theory of Heart – the absolute, non-cognitive capacity to walk compassionately in another person’s shoes. When human development operates with great Theory of Heart, you can’t NOT feel empathy for the suffering of others. It’s just how you’ve developmentally evolved. Think: Jesus on the cross begging forgiveness for his persecutors. The neurobiologist in him knew what they were doing to their own brains and bodies – that once you perpetrate one, it’s hard to “unsee” or “unfeel” a crucifixion. It lives in your owneurobiology for life.
Compromised Default Mode Network (DMN)
The Default Mode Network (DMN) in your brain is the term used to describe how interconnected specific neural structures are wired and how efficiently they function when you’re supposedly at rest. When our DMN is compromised, according to University of Western Ontario neuropsychiatrist Ruth Lanius, we may overreact or have knee-jerk reactions to disagreements and discord. We may become hyper-aggressive, argumentative, defensive and angry. This pretty much sounds like Candidate Trump to me. I don’t expect President Trump to grow significantly greater Default Mode Network capacity that will enable him to change very much over the next few years. In fact, evidence from past presidents suggests just the opposite.
Our brain takes out the neuro-trash while we sleep. When we don’t get sufficient sleep, waste byproducts of brain functioning build up. Along with that buildup comes excessive inflammation. And along with inflammation comes a whole host of conditions that do not bode well for executive decision-making. You can see a partial list HERE. The British medical journal Lancet has identified some cases of inflammation as a trigger for psychosis.
Compromised Gastrointestinal Microbiota
Trump’s diet might be what ultimately undoes him. When diet is not a concern, we don’t tell people we’re taller than we are so that our Body Mass Index won’t betray the fact that we are “overfat,” much like 76% of the rest of the world. UCLA medical researcher, Emeran Mayer, MD, asserts that “it is almost unthinkable that the gut is not playing a critical role in mind states.” Since the nation’s “fast food president” is reported to eat more than his share of KFC and McDonald’s Big Macs, we can expect that a lot of fast food policy decisions are probably going to turn out to be less than optimal. The fate of the world may well rest in the hands of the White House Chef. Provided Trump doesn’t follow presidential precedent and end up spending very little actual time there.
To underscore these points, here’s an Enchanted Loom review from Nobel Prize Winner Eric Kandel to help with your memory and your own digestion: In Search of Memory. Feel free to enjoy it and pass it along to the president-elect.