World Science Festival Panel Explores Human Capacity to Bounce Back
Scientists have long studied populations that have endured trauma as diverse as the Holocaust, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Japan in order to understand how humans cope with devastating loss. What they’ve found is that despite the horrific nature of such events, most survivors demonstrate the ability to bounce back.
Dr. Sandro Galea, who has studied the mental health consequences of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and Hurricane Katrina, says humans are naturally resistant to the effects of trauma.
Galea, the Gelman Professor and chair of the Mailman School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology, was part of a panel titled “Illuminating Resilience” at this year’s World Science Festival. Other panelists were George Bonanno, a clinical psychiatrist and professor at Teachers College; Glenn Saxe, a psychiatrist and director of the NYU Child Study Center; and Rachel Yehuda, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist and director of the traumatic stress studies division at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
The June 1 event, moderated by science writer Carl Zimmer, explored whether the ability to cope is learned or inherited and how it varies across environments.
“Many people endure events with equanimity, and then they’re done with it,” said Bonanno. “Part of the price of admission to life is adversity, and evolution gives us this incredible equipment to manage it,” Saxe agreed.
But innate traits developed over thousands of years of evolution are not entirely responsible for one’s ability to cope with trauma, according to the panelists. “It’s a complicated picture,” said Galea, who emphasized the role past events in our lives play when dealing with the next one. “Our health state today is just a point on a larger trajectory.”
Bonanno added, “Not one factor is bigger than another. Health, finances, et cetera all come into play, and random things happen that we can’t predict.”
Epigenetics, the study of changes in gene expression, has helped scientists understand how parents pass nongenetic traits on to their children. Yehuda, who has studied Holocaust survivors’ children who exhibit their parents’ acquired traits, explained that biochemical processes regulate how genes function—and these processes can be altered by trauma.
“What’s important is how the gene is expressed and events change our body,” she said. “It’s basic survival to transmit skills learned to the next generation. You can’t ever take the environment out of the equation.”
Yehuda, who has also worked with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said she believes events affect people but do not damage them. “For many vets, the benefits of the experience did not override the cost,” she said. “Survivors want to achieve something positive by talking about the experience or finding a lesson.”
Saxe concurred, “People often make meaning of the most awful things in order to transcend what has happened.”
Bonanno pointed out that coping methods often vary, including between adults exposed to single events or injuries and those facing chronic adversity. “It depends on the population and the events, but lots of people who go through horrific things don’t make meaning,” Bonanno said. “I would argue that there’s lots of people like that who just say, ‘I don’t want to think about it anymore. I’m fine.’”
Bonanno and Galea were among several Columbia faculty members who participated in this year’s World Science Festival, which was founded in 2008 by Columbia mathematician and physicist Brian Greene and his wife, Tracy Day, an award-winning television producer. The events, held throughout New York City, included Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and University Artist, at a panel on the therapeutic power of music; the world premiere of a documentary on coral reefs; discussions of neutrinos, cosmology and mental illness; and an exposition of cool jobs in science.
Portions of this year’s festival were devoted to getting children interested in science. Besides the multimedia performance Icarus at the Edge of Time, Stuart Firestein, a Columbia professor of biological sciences, talked with children during a June 3 science street fair about the differences between taste and flavor and the role our sense of smell plays in our ability to taste. To illustrate the lesson, Firestein handed out two jellybeans to each child—one to chew while they pinched their noses closed and the other to simply enjoy.
—by Meghan Berry
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