Let’s take a brief look at the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, and how toxic stress affects learning.
Your amygdala (there are actually two of them, so technically amygdalae) is the part of your brain that is responsible for helping you survive. It is closely connected to your senses. Your prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is responsible for higher-level thinking, problem-solving and the superstar of the show: executive functioning.
The amygdala is great for when your kitchen is on fire. Like an internal siren, it gets “turned up” to high volume and then helps you deal with the crisis, and ultimately survive. However, let’s say that for some reason, parts of your house kept catching on fire. After awhile your amygdala would just stay “turned up” to maximize efficiency and begin taking a more active role at all times, even when there are no fires insight. You would likely become hypervigilant about potential fires. That’s reasonable, really. Your brain has adapted to your circumstances. It thinks: “Man, there are a lot of fires in this life. Better be on the alert, pay attention, be ready at all times. We need to be in survival mode!” Your prefrontal cortex is great for learning and all, but given the threat of fires, it gladly takes a back seat to make way for your amygdala, which is doing its job, keeping you alive. It reminds you to scan your environment for danger and be ready at a moment’s notice to react to any and all real or potential threats, whatever form they might take.
Even when you leave your fire-prone house, your amygdala remains “on”, and you will continue to scan your environment for signs of danger. You’ll be on the alert for the first hint of smoke. Maybe you’ll start carrying around a fire extinguisher. You will also question your relationships. Are the people in your life liabilities? Will they get in the way of your escape plan? Could they actually be responsible for starting fires? Not surprisingly, you might have trouble making or keeping healthy relationships. Transitions and new situations will be especially challenging, and you might experience frequent anxiety or even have occasional panic attacks. You’re in survival mode, and surviving takes a lot out of you. You just can’t invest much into growing and thriving when you’re primarily focused on surviving.
When our students experience one or more Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs), they become increasingly likely to have their amygdalae “turned up” and stuck on high, leaving the prefrontal cortex taking a back seat. That’s reasonable, really. Their brains have adapted to their circumstances- sadly, they are in survival mode. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex is pretty important in school. Actually, it’s essential.
Just like in our hypothetical fire example, these students are in survival mode, and surviving takes a lot out of them. Their prefrontal cortexes just can’t invest much into growing and learning when they’re in survival mode with their amygdalae turned up high. So, instead of giving their whole focus and attention to the people around them (such as teachers) who are asking them to remember things (like spelling words) their amygdalae are orchestrating neurological and physiological vigilance for potential threats.
So, what can be done to help our students who are in “survival mode”? Research shows that play decreases amygdala activity and increases prefrontal cortex activity. And not just in the moment. The benefits of even small amounts of play can actually help heal the damage of toxic stress from the past as well as create a protective factor against future stress. (PEDIATRICS Volume 142, number 3, September 2018, http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/06/336361277/scientists-say-childs-play-helps-build-a-better-brain)
Play really is a brain changer.
Play on, my friends!