Sousa's group makes interesting observations on brain changes caused by chronic stress. There is a distinctive shift away from adaptive goal directed decision making towards habitual routines that can persist in spite of being inappropriate. Chronic stress actually causes opposing structural changes in the associative and sensorimotor corticostriatal circuits underlying these different behavioral strategies, with atrophy of medial prefrontal cortex and the associative striatum and hypertrophy of the sensorimotor striatum. The change is reversible: rats given a four week vacation from the bullying and tasers used for the stress-out reverted to normal behaviors. Angier's review points out the obvious relevance of such observation to our human behavior:
If after a few months’ exposure to our David Lynch economy, in which housing markets spontaneously combust, coworkers mysteriously disappear and the stifled moans of dying 401(k) plans can be heard through the floorboards, you have the awful sensation that your body’s stress response has taken on a self-replicating and ultimately self-defeating life of its own, congratulations. You are very perceptive. It has....Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who studies stress at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, “This is a great model for understanding why we end up in a rut, and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut.”...The truth is, Dr. Sapolsky said, “we’re lousy at recognizing when our normal coping mechanisms aren’t working. Our response is usually to do it five times more, instead of thinking, maybe it’s time to try something new.”With regard to the reversibility of the behavior:
According to Bruce S. McEwen, head of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at Rockefeller University, the new findings offer a particularly elegant demonstration of a principle that researchers have just begun to grasp. “The brain is a very resilient and plastic organ,” he said. “Dendrites and synapses retract and reform, and reversible remodeling can occur throughout life.”
The stress response is essential for maneuvering through a dynamic world — for dodging a predator or chasing down prey, swinging through the trees or fighting off disease — and it is itself dynamic. As we go about our days, Dr. McEwen said, the biochemical mediators of the stress response rise and fall, flutter and flare. “Cortisol and adrenaline go up and down,” he said. “Our inflammatory cytokines go up and down.”...The target organs of stress hormones likewise dance to the beat: blood pressure climbs and drops, the heart races and slows, the intestines constrict and relax. This system of so-called allostasis, of maintaining control through constant change, stands in contrast to the mechanisms of homeostasis that keep the pH level and oxygen concentration in the blood within a narrow and invariant range.
Unfortunately, the dynamism of our stress response makes it vulnerable to disruption, especially when the system is treated too roughly and not according to instructions. In most animals, a serious threat provokes a serious activation of the stimulatory, sympathetic, “fight or flight” side of the stress response. But when the danger has passed, the calming parasympathetic circuitry tamps everything back down to baseline flickering...In humans, though, the brain can think too much, extracting phantom threats from every staff meeting or high school dance, and over time the constant hyperactivation of the stress response can unbalance the entire feedback loop. Reactions that are desirable in limited, targeted quantities become hazardous in promiscuous excess. You need a spike in blood pressure if you’re going to run, to speedily deliver oxygen to your muscles. But chronically elevated blood pressure is a source of multiple medical miseries.
Why should the stressed brain be prone to habit formation? Perhaps to help shunt as many behaviors as possible over to automatic pilot, the better to focus on the crisis at hand. Yet habits can become ruts, and as the novelist Ellen Glasgow observed, “The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.”