Practical analysis for investment professionals
10 December 2018

Humans vs. Machines: The Stress Management Edge

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
We’re stressed out
— Twenty One Pilots

The battle between human intelligence and artificial intelligence (AI) may come down to whether humans can successfully manage chronic stress.

Chronic stress is ubiquitous and affects the part of the brain that gives us our edge over AI, according to Mithu Storoni, author of Stress Proof: The Scientific Solution to Protect Your Brain and Body — and Be More Resilient Every Day. But the good news is that we can change the cues our brains receive from the environment and, in so doing, “stress proof” our lives.

The Brain’s Raison d’être

It’s important to first understand the brain’s raison d’être, or why we are chronically stressed.

“Your brain is surrounded by an environment that it cannot see. It has no idea what the world around it looks like. So in effect, it is swimming in this vision of darkness,” Storoni explained at the CFA Institute European Investment Conference 2018 in Paris.

“Your brain is trying to pick up cues from its dark world through your sense organs to try to figure out what is going on . . . the brain is trying to create a model of the world that is as accurate as possible because it needs to predict what is about to happen next. And why does it have to do that? Because it needs to eliminate uncertainty. And why is uncertainty threatening? Because uncertainty masks danger.”

Storoni, who has an MD in ophthalmology and a PhD in neuro-ophthalmology, explained that as we assimilate information, sometimes the cues our brain receives don’t add up, which creates uncertainty. When the information points to a possible threat, the brain pushes the metaphorical “stress response” button that sets certain processes into play throughout our brains and bodies that optimize our chance of survival should the threat be real.

“Your stress response is there for your survival. But we are living in interesting times because the signals your brain is getting today are very different from the signals your brain was getting 50 years ago,” Storoni said.

“As a result, these clues that your brain is getting that there might be uncertainty, that there might be a threat in the world around it, some of them become blurred, some of them become false, some of them become difficult to interpret, and ultimately this information or misinformation makes your brain feel like it’s in a state of uncertainty, or perpetually in a state of threat. Then the button that your brain pushes as a one-off, stays turned on, and the processes in your body that are there to protect you stay turned on. And when these processes stay turned on, they start causing harm. That’s what we call harmful stress, or chronic stress.”

There are three sources of miscues: the world around us, our bodies, and our minds. These stimuli give our brains a false perception of constant, unmitigated threat, Storoni says.

The World around Us

“One source of information that tells your brain that its model of reality is correct is that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening,” Storoni said. “This cue is under threat. Your brain releases a hormone called melatonin at the end of the day. Two of its most interesting functions is that it synchronizes all the clocks around your brain and body and acts as an anxiolytic. It’s nature’s dose of anti-anxiety.”

Here’s the problem: Blue light and bright light hinder melatonin production. And today, more than ever, we are bombarded by blue light. Think about how much time you spend in front of digital screens, from televisions to tablets. Then there’s also fluorescent and LED lighting. These hampers the brain’s ability to produce the melatonin dose at its usual time. “The brain’s perception of threat is raised, and because this confuses your body’s clock, adds an additional level of uncertainty,” Storoni said.

Our Bodies

Research shows there is a relationship between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain.

“What we are discovering is that the bacteria living in your gut seem to be able to influence your thoughts and the way you react to the events taking place around you,” Storoni said. “These bacteria in effect shape your perception of the world and your perception of threat.” But eating processed food, taking painkillers, and drinking alcohol kill our gut bacteria, creating another source of perpetual threat.

Our Minds

Storoni explained that in years past, if something in our environment grabbed our attention and caused us to pause our activity, it usually signaled danger. “Today, when your environment summons your attention, it doesn’t just summon your attention once,” she said. “It is constantly summoning your attention — Smartphones, Fitbits, etc. When your mind’s attention is summoned in this way, your mind stays vigilant. When your brain sees that your mind is staying vigilant, it assumes there must be a threat constantly lurking out there.”

Why is this a problem?

Chronic stress changes the structure of the brain, thinning the area that carries the seat of sophisticated decision making, or the seat of judgment.

“For the first time in history, through advanced imaging techniques, we are discovering that when your brain is in this state of constant threat, which is coming across as chronic stress as opposed to acute stress, this is actually changing the structure of the brain,” said Storoni. “The brain is a very plastic organ and, like a really good company, it readjusts its departments according to what is required of it. So if it finds itself in a state of chronic stress, it upgrades the departments that are necessary and downgrades the departments that are [not].”

This is an issue for investors today because they have to compete with AI.

“AI is better than us at predicting. We can’t beat AI at prediction,” Storoni said. But when investors are making a complex financial decision, they rely on more than just prediction.

“You are taking a prediction and flavoring it with judgment,” she said. “As AI becomes ubiquitous, the value of prediction drops. The limiting factor becomes judgment and your value is based on your ability to judge.”

Storoni reminded the audience of former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld’s well-known quote about “known knowns”:

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

What’s missing, according to Storoni, is unknown knowns.

“AI is great at working with a set of knowns,” she said. “But your brain has the edge with the unknown knowns.”

But we lose this advantage when chronic stress changes our brains.

Where to from here?

“The same technology that is making our lives so much easier is also restructuring our brains and defeating our power, defeating the edge that we have over the technology itself, the AI,” Storoni said. “The solution isn’t that you have to stop what you are doing, give up your job, and disappear to an island.”

She believes it is possible to thrive in a digital age without stress. We just need to change the cues our brains are receiving from its environment.

Storoni offered three practical solutions:

  1. Wear blue-light-blocking glasses for two hours before going to sleep. This elevates your melatonin levels and improves both your REM sleep and overall sleep quality, which is when you unlearn fear memories.
  2. Studies show that taking probiotics and changing the way you eat can change your perception of anxiety.
  3. Make sure you have blocks in your day when you are not in this state of constant vigilance. Research demonstrates that yoga and mindfulness and meditation are correlated with thickening in the parts of the brain that stress thins.

In sum, Storoni believes we need to embrace, not reject the future. “It is possible to thrive in a digital age without stress. We just need to change the cues our brains are receiving from its environment,” she said. “This will make us resilient.”

For more from Mithu Storoni, she recently sat down with journalist Sarah Lazarus at the 2018 Hong Kong International Literary Festival.

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All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image credit: ©Getty Images/drante

About the Author(s)
Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster is the former managing editor of Enterprising Investor and co-lead of CFA Institute’s Women in Investment Management initiative. Previously, she worked as a freelance writer for Barron’s and the Financial Times. Prior to her freelance work, Foster spent nearly a decade on staff at the FT as a reporter and editor based in the New York bureau. Foster holds a BA in political science from the University of Cape Town, and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

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