I borrowed the title of this series from a Loyola Law Journal article by DU Law professor Debra S. Austin, J.D., Ph.D.: Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress And How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance.
The phrase “neural self-hacking” comes from Google, which runs a class for employees by that name, plus other classes on brain well-being. Yeah, it’s a Silicon Valley thing, but don’t be fooled: the companies offering these classes mean business, and they think mindfulness is good for it. As Prof. Austin says:
Many innovative companies promote wellness to provide vibrant workplaces and thriving employees. Research shows that perks such as onsite gyms, work/life balance programs, stress management classes, mindfulness training, and nutrition coaching improve the bottom line.
Killing Them Softly makes the case for why the law profession might want to catch up with that idea, instead of mounting a systematic attack on law students’ and lawyers’ brains. Prof. Austin’s article describes in detail just how we do that, and the implications of this practice. Consider these excerpts:
Neuroscience shows that the aggregate educative effects of training to become a lawyer under chronically stressful conditions may undermine the efforts of legal educators by weakening the learning capacities of law students. Stress in legal education may also set the stage for abnormally high rates of anxiety and depression among lawyers.
The stresses facing law students and lawyers result in a significant decline in their well-being, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Neuroscience now shows that this level of stress also diminishes cognitive capacity. The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition.
Cognition, Latin for “the faculty of knowing,” describes the process by which humans perceive stimuli, extract key information to hold in memory, and generate thoughts and actions to achieve goals.
In other words, the way we initiate lawyers into the profession and how we approach law practice is counterproductive on the most fundamental neurological level. We make it hard for lawyers’ brains to do what we ask of them. We impede their ability to learn, to store knowledge and access memory, and to exercise sound judgment. Most critically, we restrict that essential ability to sort through the facts, discern what’s important, and figure out what to do about it. And while we’re at it, we also heighten susceptibility to the distressing psychological conditions that plague our profession.
And guess what? That’s what happened to all of us. It’s amazing any of us can function as our studies and work require, but our brains are amazingly resilient, and we’ll talk about how they get the job done in the face of all this neurological aggression. Before we get that far, we’ll look into how our brains learn, and how the stresses of the profession damage them. And we’ll take a look at the case for neural self-hacking.