The Neuroscience Of Adversity Vs Friston’s Free Energy Principle

Neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, describes resilient people as people who not only withstand certain kinds of stressful events, but benefit from them, and turn adversity into advantage. Other concepts that he links with resilience are recovery period, higher developed left-brain capacity and increased hippocampal functioning [1].

To be able to effectively enhance resilience, we need to have an understanding of what it is and the components it consists of. Fortunately, developments in neuroscience help to uncover what underpins resilience, providing more concrete ways to improve and measure resilience skills [2,3].

Advancing despite adversity is a simple way of summarising these highly-complex thought processes and patterns within the brain. The human brain itself is the most complex device we’ve ever come across, with over 100 billion neurons and over 100 trillion synapses connecting them all. This is far more complex and integrated than any supercomputer that we’ve ever developed, yet the brain is remarkably adaptable and resilient in its own sense.

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The brain in a changing world

To appreciate the uniqueness of the brain, it helps to understand how it developed to this point. For millions of years the brain has been evolving and adapting to an environment filled with constant danger. A world where we were part of the food chain and certainly not the most powerful beings to contend with.

Back then, the most common solutions were to run or fight—primal instincts that helped survival. This meant that the brain wired itself towards making these primal instincts as accessible as possible. For example, if a snake is coming toward you, you shouldn’t have to take a few moments to consider what action to take; you should just run.

In contrast, the brain hasn’t had nearly as much time to adapt to the world we live in now, a world of relative safety where complex thought is often more valuable than primal instincts. The work of neurologist and researcher, Paul D. MacLean, pointed towards the development of the neural networks, from the primitive (survival brain) to the advanced (cortical regions—the paleomammalian brain) [4].

He wrote of a hierarchy of development—survival first and then higher-order connectivity, leading to thriving. Taken in the context of societal development, the brain architecture shares its deepest narrative: it is geared toward survival, but it has the capacity to thrive. However, thriving is only possible when survival is well and truly taken care of. Herein lies the secrets of the pathway towards resilience.

Contextualising the survival brain

Better understanding the survival / limbic brain plays a key role in behavioural neuroscience, particularly through decisions with high emotionality. As the older part of the brain, it contains several structures that are aimed towards survival by almost forcefully drawing cognitive attention. The most famous of these structures is the amygdala, having gained infamy for its role in the fear response, and activation of the fight or flight system through the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis. In addition to the amygdala, we have lesser-known structures, such as the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST), which is arguably even more important than the amygdala [5].

While amygdala activation is short-lived for immediate fear responses, the BNST activates for extended periods when stimuli exceeds 10 minutes. This includes the stress response, extended fear states, social anxiety and general anxiety – mental states that involve a fixation on future uncertainty.

The BNST has direct access to activate the HPA axis and is now considered to play a crucial role in trauma and social dysfunction. Considering that these are often the types of symptoms that require treatment, it’s worth building an awareness of the BNST, as it’s likely to grow in relevance in coming years – look forward to more research here.

Basic needs of neuroscience

As the brain evolved, there were certain behaviours and desires that proved to be instrumental in the success of the human race and its individuals. Without these adaptations, we would not be where we are today. Consequentially, these behaviours and desires were embedded deep within the brain. Their significance is obvious, as each of us bring them to the workplace where, knowingly or not, we try to fulfill these ‘basic needs’, long sought by psychologists and philosophers as the basic driver of human motivation.

Friston puts forward the suggestion that ultimately, human motivation results from one key driver...

Many researchers explored these needs, including Sigmund Freud around 1900 and Abraham Maslow back in 1943 with his famous hierarchy of needs. Maslow and others presented a good starting point, though this was purely from a psychological perspective. Back then, there was a limited understanding about how the structures of the brain fit into the picture. As the field of neuroscience developed, more nuanced theories appeared about what exactly the basic needs are and how they fit together. At this point, Epstein compiled four basic needs as follows [6]:

  • The need for connection and attachment to others

  • The need for control and orientation

  • The need for motivation by maximising pleasure and minimising pain

  • The need to enhance self-esteem (which is a ‘meta-need’, as it feeds off the enhancement of the other basic needs)

A single fundamental behavioural driver?

Building on the work of Helmholtz and others over the last 150 year, Karl Friston put forward an explanation of human perception and behaviour as a result of free energy minimisation through the brain’s functioning as a Bayesian system [7]. Now, the work of Friston is extraordinarily complex, with even PhD level researchers in various fields being unable to make sense of it. Still, Friston’s monumental contribution to the field of neuroscience and brain imaging puts him at the forefront of understanding complex relationships in the brain.

Without getting too deep into the concepts behind free energy minimisation, a key concept that arises out of this work is that Friston puts forward the suggestion that ultimately, human motivation results from one key driver – resolving uncertainty.

Resolving uncertainty is something that I can reconcile to some degree in my (very) simplistic understanding. For example:

  • Having a strong social network reduces uncertainty around interaction and resource sharing

  • The presence of pain calls forth many questions about the future that we’d rather avoid

  • Higher self-esteem provides more confidence of our ability to manage uncertainty in the future

  • The need for control and orientation is essentially the same as the concept of resolving uncertainty

The four basic human needs, Friston's single driver, and the PR6 supporting with resilience

Resolving uncertainty also provides us with a way to understand the concept of safety. A physically and mentally safer environment is often one with much less uncertainty and surprise about the critically important aspects of life.

By the way, feel free do to some reading on him, but be forewarned, for if thee gaze into the work of Friston, Friston’s work will also gaze into thee…

Resilience resolves uncertainty

Looking through this lens, resolving uncertainty is also useful to consider resilience and the effect of adversity. In many ways, adversity brings uncertainty. Being able to resolve the uncertainty that adversity brings in a timely or even proactive way is what we aim to achieve through resilience. In other words, resilience is the most direct pathway to enable our fundamental need to resolve uncertainty.

The domains of Vision, Composure, Reasoning, Tenacity, Collaboration, and Health [8], function together and support each other to enable the achievement of the four basic needs, and therefore towards Friston’s basic motivator of resolving uncertainty. The result of the interaction of these domains is an ability to sustain a motivated state, where you can manage life’s ups and downs while staying focused on achieving something meaningful. This is the aim of resilience.

Resilience is the most direct pathway to enable our fundamental need to resolve uncertainty

While Friston and others show us complex theoretical elements, to me the domains of resilience are important as a way to make the achievement of the basic needs practical for a normal person. These are simple concepts and skills we can learn and by extension, become resilient and achieve thriving. Clear steps to put this into action is how we can do this today, here and now, with a client in session, or even with yourself at home.

Through all the complexity of the neuroscience of resilience, the most important concept to keep in mind is that resilience aims to build connections within the brain. This is so we can decrease activation of the limbic brain – an area highly sensitive to uncertainty. And in turn, we want to build connection to increase activation of the frontal cortex – the structure best suited to help us resolve and prevent future uncertainty. At its neuroscientific core, this is what resilience is about.

All the best,

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1. Begley, S., & Davidson, R. (2012). The emotional life of your brain: How its unique patterns affect the way you think, feel, and live-and how you can change them. Hachette UK.
2. Kandel, E. R. (2007). In search of memory: The emergence of a new science of mind. WW Norton & Company.
3. LeDoux, J. E. (2003). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. Penguin.
4. MacLean, P. D. (1990). The triune brain in evolution: Role in paleocerebral functions. Springer Science & Business Media.
5. Lebow, M. A., & Chen, A. (2016). Overshadowed by the amygdala: the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis emerges as key to psychiatric disorders. Molecular psychiatry, 21(4), 450.
6. Epstein, S. (2003). Cognitive-experiential self-theory of personality. In Millon, T., & Lerner, M. J. (Eds), Comprehensive Handbook of Psychology, Volume 5: Personality and Social Psychology ( pp. 159-184). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.)
7. Friston, K., Kilner, J., & Harrison, L. (2006). A free energy principle for the brain. Journal of Physiology-Paris, 100(1-3), 70-87.
8. Rossouw, J.G., Rossouw, P.J. (2016). The Predictive 6-Factor Resilience Scale – Neurobiological Fundamentals and Organizational Application

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