Thoughts on Thoughts: The Mind Under Extreme Duress

Wednesday, 25 November 2009, 19:18 | Category : Health, Psychology, Uncategorized
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So two stories I came across recently made me think about the brain’s ability to cope under extreme stress.

The first is the story of the recently-freed Iranian-Canadian Journalist, Maziar Bahari, who was held captive for 118 days following election protests in Iran.

He was arrested and held under suspicion of being a spy. During this period, Bahari was tortured by his captors – one in particular, who threatened his life daily. What interests me most is what Bahari did to get by during this time. While on more than one occasion he contemplated taking his life, he argued with himself – in other words, engaged in self-talk – on why he shouldn’t. Reason one: “Don’t be stupid. Don’t do their job for them.” Makes sense.

When he felt that the walls of his tiny cell were closing in (literally), Bahari even went as far to create an alternate universe in his mind (to disassociate from the present one). As one example, when his skin was burning, Bahari apparently mentally transported himself to a beach in South Africa, where he previously acquired severe sunburn. This alternate universe “was guarded by Mr. Leonard Cohen.”

What’s more, “it was just ridiculous to me that this old Jewish [man], and one of the most cynical poet songwriters in the world, managed to save me in the heart of the Islamic Republic,” he told the BBC. Clearly, the man had enough presence of mind under these extreme circumstances to call out irony when he saw it. If there’s a way to be a captive, I’d say that’s it.

The other story (it came out on the same day), involved a different kind of harrowing experience, but also one that deals with confinement, and in the most extreme sense. It involves a man who was thought to be comatose…for 23 years…and falsely so. It turns out Rob Houben was not in a vegetative state, but paralyzed and conscious throughout the entire ordeal. I mean, this is the kind of stuff nightmares are made of: “I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,” Daily Mail quoted Houben as saying (though now there’s debate whether or not he actually said those words).

In 2006, a scan revealed that the man’s brain was functioning almost entirely. (As a side note, and perhaps even more shockingly, the man who detailed the case says that about 40 per cent of such patients go misdiagnosed). As in the first story, Houben also created an alternate universe; he “dreamt the time away” as the years passed. “All that time I just literally dreamed of a better life. Frustration is too small a word to describe what I felt.”

Arguably, a person’s ability to endure such extremely stressful situations comes down to the extent and severity of the situations (and obviously their duration). Coping strategies too play a role. But so does biology.

Studies suggest that an individual’s capacity to be resilient under conditions of extreme stress, such as those regularly experienced by soldiers, police, and firefighters, also involve hormones.

Dehydroepiandrosterone, or “DHEA”, to be exact. This is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal gland (above your pancreas) in response to stress. Although scientists have known for over a decade that DHEA provides beneficial, anti-stress effects in animals, they did not know until recently whether this was also true for humans.

A recent study that looked at soldiers’ ability to tolerate stress found indication that compounds like DHEA might be used in the future to protect military personnel from the negative impact of operational stress.

How would say a DHEA pill impact on interrogators and the interrogated? (I mean, the very point of an interrogation the way I understand it is to stress the individual out to the point that it illicit a perceived confession.) Would it just raise the stakes? Would it be beneficial for individuals who knowingly go into high-risk and high-stress situations (i.e. war correspondents, police officers, etc.)? Could it be administered post trauma to lessen its effects? Not sure about any of these, but these are just some of the questions I’m left asking. And I hope insight comes by way of public discourse.

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