Biolearning December 2020

Survival pressure forces us to adapt. Adapting requires learning. Learning is the process of reconciling our world with the world. Stress is the friction that exists when those worlds are out of sync. Stress is the necessary precondition to learning, like a muscle growing after failing.

When you experience something stressful, your body marks that part of your nervous system with acetylcholine. When you sleep after a stressful experience, your body will go to the spots marked by acetylcholine and lower your dopamine levels. Contrary to popular wisdom, this results in neuroplasticity, the capacity to learn. This capacity results from stress at all ages, not just during childhood. That means your nervous system is primed to learn in the areas that experienced the recent stress. As you process and adapt to your stressful experience, you’ll be recognized by your nervous system in the form of increased dopamine. You’ll be focused and motivated more as you come closer to reconciling your world with the world. You’ll seek out experiences that can be plugged in to that neuroplastic part of your nervous system.

As your dopamine gets higher however, you’ll become less interested in focusing on that stress, and turn your attention elsewhere. This attention change results in lower neuroplasticity, as the learning is nearly at the local maximum. As you experience further stress in other areas, the process repeats itself. When you experience new stress in areas previously perceived to be fully developed, again the process repeats itself. This stress, increased motivation, focus, progress, decreased motivation, changed focus loop is governed by a few now known neurotransmitters.

First, we experience stress. Then, when we sleep, the stress is turned into the nervous system’s version of a growth mindset. Without sleep, the stress builds without recovery, resulting in decreased dopamine, abundant acetylcholine, and less focus due to competing forms of stress. With sleep, we can continue the process of marking where we need to learn and focusing our attention on the parts of our nervous system currently experiencing the more stress.

Realizing this really changed how I think about stress. Stress is simply an opportunity to adapt and get better. Post traumatic growth seems like less of a mystery. When confronted with an extreme challenge to reconcile our world with the world, we rise to the occasion. This allows for, almost enables, profound learning. It all comes down to how we perceive and act on stress.

So much of life seems to be about hacking the loop. We experience stress, which leads to reduced dopamine. We stop there and drug ourselves. This feels like progress, because dopamine is progress in neurotransmitter form, when in practice it simply allows us to cope with being out of alignment with reality. If we instead lean into the stress, channel the motivation, process and adapt, we benefit from this natural process of learning. We learn. When we learn, our body recognizes us with serotonin, which unlike dopamine is responsible for pleasure.

Stress is a necessary precondition to learning. Learning is a necessary precondition to pleasure. Close the loop and stress is a necessary precondition to pleasure. Biology proves stoics right.