Electric Shocks Prompt “Impulsive” and “Primitive” Side of Brain

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A recent study coming out of Britain finds that when the threat of electric shock looms near, humans shift from the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs rational thought—in order to engage the “fight or flight” part of the brain. In the study (published in its entirety yesterday in Science), volunteers played a game similar to Pac-Man, in which they had to evade a predator. When the computer predator caught them, they would receive a shock to the hand. Researchers found that as the predator closed in, the threat of imminent punishment moved the player’s thinking from rational to impulsive and primitive.

This study makes me wonder, then, how autistic and mentally retarded students—profiled in “School of Shock,” a feature from the current issue of Mother Jones—react to the constant threat of punitive electric shocks. If what the British study suggests is true and the threat of electric shock makes people less rational, I’d assume the shocks would also make it harder for autistic and developmentally disabled students to reason out why they’re being punished. And if fear and the threat of electric shocks increase incidents of impulsive behavior, it seems like a vicious and terribly inefficient system to me, considering these impulsive acts are the very behaviors students are often punished for in the first place.

In addition, a pervasive environment of fear at school (described in detail in our article) would also make academics more difficult because students are using the “fight or flight” part of their brain rather than the prefrontal cortex, which rules abstract reasoning and complex decision-making.

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