Adults who have had stressful childhoods find it harder to sense risky situations approaching, new research finds.
As a result, looming health, financial or legal problems could be more difficult to spot for people who were maltreated early in life.
But when the bad luck hits, people who have had stressful childhoods get hit harder — perhaps because it is more of a surprise.
Professor Seth Pollak, who led the study, said:
“It’s not that people are overtly deciding to take these negative risks, or do things that might get them in trouble.
It may very well be that their brains are not really processing the information that should tell them they are headed to a bad place, that this is not the right step to take.”
For the study, young adults — some of whom were highly stressed as children — were given a series of tests of risk and reward.
The study showed that those who were maltreated at around 8-years-old found it harder to learn from their mistakes and to sense that loss was coming.
They made the same poor decisions when weighing risks against reward over and over again.
Professor Pollak said:
“It was our observation not that they couldn’t do math, but that they weren’t really attending to the right things.
We didn’t see people improving over time.
You might say, ‘Well, they don’t get how it works.’
But the people with high-stress childhoods, even after many trials, they weren’t using negative feedback to change their behavior and improve.”
Brain scans also revealed that there was relatively low activity in areas related to loss as people were considering their choice.
Professor Pollak continued:
“And then, when they would lose, we’d see more activity than expected—an overreaction—in the part of the brain that responds to reward, which makes sense.
If you didn’t catch the cue that you were likely to lose, you’re probably going to be pretty shocked when you don’t win.”
Professor Rasmus Birn, the study’s first author, said they want to expand this finding:
“Now that we have this finding, we can use it to guide us to look at specific networks in the brain that are active and functionally connected.
We may find that childhood stress reshapes the way communication happens across the brain.”
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The study was published in the journal PNAS (Birn et al., 2017).