The Policing Brain
Key observations from the presentation by Dr. Jessica Miller
- Since 2002, there has been a focus globally within neuropsychology to understand not only how the brain responds to specific situations, but also how it files memories away. Thanks to recent breakthroughs, we have learned more about the human brain in the last fifteen years than the rest of human history.
- For example, we now know that the brain has the ability to reorganise itself and create new circuits in response to our environment, and even in response to our thoughts. Given the right conditions, this helps reduce the stress build-up that is often attributed to situations like burnout.
- The Amygdala, part of the limbic system, is the bodies ‘alarm bell’ that goes off when something isn’t right. It is responsible for the fight or flight response, blood pressure, digestion, hyper-arousal and vigilance. It is, in essence, our response system to stress, fear and trauma.
- Meanwhile, the Hippocampus is the part that contextualises information and commits trauma to memory. This is the part of the brain that turns the current into the past and manages the recall process.
- Whilst some people are pre-disposed to problems around this, the challenge for the police service is due to its nature, policing leads to the Amygdala being in a constant state of arousal. This can mean the brain has difficulty contextualising stress and turning it into memories.
- Behaviour is often characterised by a re-living of incidents with mental images and sounds, avoidance and a sense of numbness, irritability, a heightened sense of alertness, lack of sleep, and an inability to recognise humour.
- Things seen as coping mechanisms, such as alcohol and SSRI antidepressants often compound the problem because the individual simply carries on as before.
- With budget challenges making policing a more responsive model (rather than proactive), and the number of traumatic incidents attended in quick succession on the rise, there is a greater risk of harm due to repeated exposure to trauma.
- There are ways to combat this, and the answer lies in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain interrupts stress and fear response, as well as being responsible for willpower and decisionmaking. It also looks after our ability for compassion and humour.
- By stimulating the pre-frontal cortex, we increase the ability to interrupt the stress response, and therefore improve the brains capacity to convert stress into memory. This not only reduces the risk of post-traumatic stress, but also increases our ability to function and better evaluate decisions.
- There are resources already available on how to do this, but are not routinely available within the police service.