Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for the ‘Nature/Nurture’ Category

Limited Broadband: The Need To Conserve Mental Energy

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 18, 2013


“An extensive literature search shows that lower socioeconomic status is associated with a range of self-defeating behaviors, including more risk-taking (not using seat belts, for example), worse adherence to protocols (such as failing to complete a full course of a medicine) and poorer financial management (impulse buying, for example, or buying on credit, which adds considerably to an item’s cost).”

“Extensive research shows that “frontal function” is impaired in people who increase their cognitive load with things such as distracting tasks, stress,sleep deprivation, pain or even resisting temptation (for example, if you make someone’s frontal cortex work hard in order for them to resist eating chocolate, they are less capable immediately afterward of performing frontal cognitive tasks). What Mani found is that poor people, in general, have a greater cognitive load than rich people.”,0,3283699.story

Stress makes decision-making more vulnerable to impulse, and hence poorly thought out conclusions. Hence the downward spiral of mental illness. First someone gets depressed or anxious, and then they are consumed with coping with very disturbing feelings, causing them to make poor decisions in their life, such as poor career choice, poor spousal choice, thereby leading to further pain and suffering. Likewise, those who feel good about themselves, without the burden of negativity, have more broadband, if you will, to consider choices and promote themselves through positive changes and decisions. Not only do the rich get richer, as this opinion piece suggests, but the happy folks get happier and the unhappy folks go further South. This widening economic gap, so often discussed these days, along with its’ associated opportunity gap, also applies to a widening mental health gap.


The brain, it is fair to say, is a limited tool, and so conservation of energy is necessary to flourish, and similarly, a taxed brain, is limited in its’ ability to explore new possibilities. Imagine identical twin boys, twenty-one, Joe and John, raised in different environments. Joe was sexually, physically and verbally abused. John reports no childhood stressors. In adulthood, Joe is more likely to find abusive relationships and seek comfort from those who, ultimately, betray him. John is much less likely to have that experience, as by his report of his mental state, he is emotionally unburdened to find a mate who cares about him, without hurting him. Joe, is more likely to have the repetition compulsion described in my previous post. He is more likely to find a relationship that mirrors his childhood experience, in an effort to conserve mental energy, and not process his childhood traumas.


Am I, the psychiatrist, trained medically, touting the importance of nurture over nature? Yes, and no, the more broadband Joe and John have, the greater their native emotional and cognitive intelligence, the more likely they will thrive in the world; the more likely they will be able to think their way through difficult circumstances. At the same time, nurture can limit the broadband by burdening the brain with anxieties and flashbacks, thereby inhibiting the brain from further development. As a society, we need to make sure all kids have as much broadband as possible, such that Joe and John have an equal chance in the world. We also need to understand how Joe and John have different struggles, and how they are not just different, but one is harder than the other. “It takes a village,” Hillary Clinton said to raise a child. It also “takes a village” to hurt them as well.

Posted in Nature/Nurture | 4 Comments »

The Violent Brain

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 15, 2013

Sagittal MRI slice with highlighting indicating location of the anterior cingulate cortex.…/la-na-prisoner-brains-20130715,0,5130358.story

The anterior cingulate cortex(ACC)  fires, giving the person a feeling for what others experience, otherwise known as empathy. It stands to reason that those who have an ACC which fires with more intensity are going to have a greater sense for what others experience. So, the researchers from Kent Kiehl’s laboratory found that when scanning violent inmates, those with low ACC firing are more likely to be repeat offenders. As Michael Haederle reported in today’s LA Times…


“The trove of data they have gathered has revealed telltale abnormalities in the structure and functioning of psychopaths’ brains. On the whole, they have

less gray matter in the paralimbic system — believed to help regulate emotion — which may help account for their characteristic glibness, pathological lying,

lack of empathy and tendency to act impulsively.”

The nature/nurture argument returns. Empathy and impulsivity seem to be largely innate qualities, such that if we can measure brain activity in convicted criminals, we would get a better sense of a person’s predisposition towards further heinous crimes. Yes, this is not perfect, and so biological data can be used to convict criminals who should be given a second chance. However, this does not mean that further exploration about how brain activity predicts behavior should not be done. In other words, this report is an exciting development in understanding how brain function influences judgment.

Posted in Mental Health and the Media, Nature/Nurture, Neurobiology of Behavior, Psychopathology | 5 Comments »

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