Building Brains, One Policy at a Time

Pat Levitt speaks at Bowdoin on "Toxic Stress"

Dr. Pat Levitt speaks at Bowdoin on “Toxic Stress”

Every brain has a story, according to acclaimed neuroscientist Dr. Pat Levitt of the University of Southern California. In his Oct. 4 lecture “Toxic Stress and its Impact on Early Learning and Health,” held in Kresge Auditorium, Visual Arts Center, Levitt explained that our brains’ stories are shaped not only by our genes, but also by our early childhood experiences.

Though his presentation brimmed with scientific content, the three main ideas were simple. First and foremost was the importance of human contact and communication at an early age — experiences that chemically alter our genes and DNA, in effect molding the brain’s architecture. Second was the concept of toxic stress: the anxiety that stems from social neglect, whereas a nurturing environment begets emotionally robust individuals, poised to combat life’s challenges.

There’s where Levitt’s third and final tenet of “resiliency” came in. Levitt argued that resiliency is a biological construct, fostered by positive social interactions early in life. “Those early experiences are either building less or more resilient individuals to be able to survive the challenges that come to every individual,” Levitt said. Essentially, this cognitive flexibility provides the foundation for a happy and emotionally sound existence.

Peter Lindsay, Director of Community Impact and “Success by 6″ at United Way of Mid Coast Maine, took over from Levitt where the science ended and the policy began. He proposed that the true power of Levitt’s ideas could be demonstrated through practical application — and noted several members of the audience with the clout to implement such policies, including the Chief Justice of Maine Supreme Judicial Court as well as various Maine legislators, town and city councilors, and leaders of statewide health organizations.

Lindsay was also careful to include another group — the future leaders and policy makers. “The students from Bowdoin College will help us as a community, state and nation, [to] develop policies, programs, and supports, so that children and their families will thrive over time,” Lindsay said. Bowdoin students left the auditorium buzzing about the implications of the talk. “I really want to know how we can raise children so that each child develops to their full potential, and can lead the happiest, healthiest life they can,” said Calvin Henry ’16.

Levitt’s Friday night discussion opened an Oct. 5 Communities in Action symposium sponsored in part by Bowdoin, aimed to raise awareness of the cognitive challenges prevalent among today’s youth.

Read more about other fall symposia on campus.

By Raleigh McElvery

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