Dr Jessica (Jess) Miller, Neuropsychologist at the Police Dependants’ Trust (now Police Care UK) and the University of Cambridge writes for Oscar Kilo about ‘Bringing Neuroscience to Policing’.
More has been discovered about the brain in the last fifteen years than in the whole of human history[i]. One of the most powerful discoveries more recently has been that we can learn to re-wire our own brains using thought alone: without medication, without machinery, without any gifted genius or any ‘special qualities’. This new-found ability for everyday individuals to be able to change the structure and function of our own minds by ourselves is called “self-directed neuroplasticity” and all it takes is consistent practice and an open mind. What we have yet to get our heads round (literally) is what this might mean for the day-to-day lives of the those who face increasing challenges to their mental resilience and wellbeing. We know from recent survey evidence (from the PDT[ii], the PFEW and the HMIC) that individuals face unprecedented levels of stress working in the UK police service.
So how does anyone even start to think about thinking, never mind find the time to do anything about it?
Over the next two years the Police Dependants’ Trust and the University of Cambridge will be finding out more about how we can learn to fine-tune the policing mind to become as resilient, agile and healthy on the job as possible. We will be working with police forces across the UK to understand what the challenges are to the policing mind, how this plays out in the way officers and staff respond to their work, to each other, and to the wider world- and what techniques we can introduce to better support the internal, mental experience of policing life.
Introducing the ‘Policing Brain’
This year, the Police Dependants’ Trust held the first annual conference devoted to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on 22nd March, facilitated by journalist Alastair Stewart. Delegates spoke loud and clear about the need for a culture shift towards understanding and dealing with psychological injuries, such as PTSD.
I gave a lecture about “the policing brain” and how, because of the nature of the police work, individuals’ brains may naturally become more efficient in some areas, but at the cost of important function in other areas.
To explain a little more, the image below shows the hippocampus (shaped like a seahorse) and the amygdala (shaped like an almond). These are areas of the brain which must work together to deal with incoming stress. Over time, the uncomfortable truth is that the hippocampus becomes damaged by the very stress it needs to manage. The damaged hippocampus can no longer provide the context of space and time which individuals need to be able to file difficult situations as ‘past’ in long term memory. What we now know is that we need to commandeer another, newer area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, to help us see what is going on, where we are, and how we are. By training this newer area of the brain, we can improve stress management, awareness, agility and ultimately resilience. This area of the brain is key to the evolution of our minds and to man’s survival.
Taking the brain on
250 000 years ago, early man survived in the Serengeti by understanding that individuals shared basic needs to be resilient. It was only those groups who bonded with compassion for each other’s vulnerabilities that survived. The part of the brain that developed (the prefrontal cortex, or PFC) then went on to give us humour and will power, separating us from the animal kingdom like never before. When firing well, the PFC connects together many other parts of the brain in synchronicity, breaking down barriers, smoothing out glitches (such as those experienced in repeated stress) and giving us a sense of awareness and clarity. Compassion, (sometimes dark!) humour and willpower are already gifts to police resilience; we just need to learn how to practice these at the right times so we can become more resilient when we need it most.
Supporting the ‘policing brain’ on duty
So, when do we need resilience most? The pressing need for more insight into how to support police officers in their everyday duty was brought home at the PTSD conference in March 2017 – reinforced even more by the tragic events that unfolded that very afternoon in Westminster, London. The images in the press of the Westminster terrorist attack (illustrated below by The Metro online) brought the public face-to-face with the impact that critical incidents can have on attending police officers in the minutes, hours, weeks, and sometimes years that follow the event. Images like this beg questions: What happened to those officers bottom right as they left the scene? Where are they now? What support did they receive? Is their inner experience of the world different to how it was before? How well have they adjusted?
First aid for the policing brain
One of the most important functions a brain needs to process unexpected or extreme incidents is the ability to put things in context as soon as possible. Typically, we do this by using our hippocampus and applying an objective view of the situation, or a longer perspective, and by sharing our experiences of the event with other people. Scene reconstruction and producing timelines of events are good ways of helping the brain make sense of major incidents. Maps, overhead views and timelines are often used in press coverage to explain events to the reader and are also used in regular processes of gathering information for incident investigation. Sharing contexts of time and space with others helps the brain (the hippocampus) create a narrative and a boundary for the events that have passed, allowing it to file the event and to contain it. This is crucial for enabling the stress response (in the amygdala) to subside and for bringing the individual back to the safety (and the demands) of the present.
Sadly, the opportunity for today’s police officers to exchange experiences, process and unwind from critical incidents (or even just stressful interactions) with their peers are few and far between. Many individuals are single-crewed, or return to shift work or to home life without having had the chance to process what has just happened and reset the stress response to an acceptable level. What is more, the culture of ‘getting on with the job’ and focussing on helping (or reporting to) others sometimes overrides any moments individuals may take for themselves to attend to their thinking.
While admirable on the face of things, this relentlessly reactive approach is not sustainable for the brain or body. Without specific opportunities to re-set the stress response to a manageable level, individuals are needlessly vulnerable to physical and psychological health risks, ranging from high blood pressure and autoimmune diseases to anxiety, burnout and PTSD. The depiction of the hyper-vigilant, hyper-aroused, disassociated, emotionally numb, compassion-fatigued, driven police officer in fiction may tell us something about mental well-being, but it does not tell the whole story. We need to understand the inner experience of real-life police officers to be able to introduce feasible cognitive techniques which are relevant to the practicalities and challenges of their working day.
Our challenge as researchers is working out how to bring pro-active neuroscience to the working world, given the structure, pace and pressures of contemporary policing. To do that, we need to talk to you, not about you.
The evidence base
We know much about the dangers of not processing experiences effectively. The impact of unprocessed past traumas and of chronic stress on the brain and body are often talked about in the press and in popular psychology. How stress and trauma exposure plays out in the mental agility of working police officers was brought to my attention in a study I completed last year with Bournemouth University. The neuropsychology study was a collaboration with the NHS and involved 150 participants, 28 of whom were serving police officers and 25 of whom were military veterans from the charity Combat Stress[iii]. The research showed that even minimal damage to the hippocampus from trauma exposure in healthy adults (as well as in more severe cases of PTSD) affected how well individuals put things in context spatially. Because of this, trauma exposure impaired their ability to navigate. Given the potential impact for the police (as well as the military and other emergency responders), I decided to publish the results first in Police Professional in November 2016. For a more scientific summary of the research, visit: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1074742716303562.
The good news is that neuroscience doesn’t just bring us problems, it brings us solutions.
After over 10 years of neuroscientific studies and with the help of tens of thousands of individuals across the UK (and the world), we have at our finger tips a whole array of easy-to-grasp, practical mental techniques which have been proven to help rewire the human brain to improve resilience and wellbeing. There is an increasingly impressive evidence base of applying cognitive agility techniques in demanding occupations (including special forces training[iv], military trauma processing[v], and even NASA[vi]) as well as ongoing research on a massive scale in mainstream education[vii].
What we don’t quite yet have, is research into how cognitive techniques for trauma processing and resilience can be applied to policing.
Neuroscience moves at a pace and is often driven by the need to demonstrate statistical significance and large effect sizes. To do this, studies need to have large cohorts of participants, with similar experiences of stress, similar backgrounds and similar health profiles undertaking the same training and practicing to the same extent over the same period of time. The practical limitations of such studies for the UK police are formidable. Under unprecedented pressure with fewer fiscal and human resources, and with increasing demand from cuts to other services and the changing nature of crime, the police service is not in the most resourced position to be able to spare the time and manpower en masse for the benefit of science. Something more workable and more achievable needs to be done, the sooner the better.
Our approach is to bring what we already know to the everyday life of the UK police officer (and to perhaps let go of the scientific endeavour, just for a moment). With so much evidence and so much energy behind the neuroscientific development of resilience techniques, we are of the mind at the Police Dependants’ Trust and the University of Cambridge that it is about time we asked police officers themselves to think about their thinking.
Over the next two years, The Police Dependants’ Trust and the University of Cambridge will be running the Trauma Resilience in the UK Police (2017 – 2019) project to pilot new trauma exposure processing techniques and resilience practices to the UK police service. We will be talking to forces particularly affected by recent critical incidents and terrorist events about how trauma exposure and resilience is managed in their workplace and will be following this up with a large scale online survey. The project will also be studying policing roles in which individuals are at risk from exposure to psychologically hazardous material (such as in Child Sexual Exploitation, call handling and forensic imaging units) as well as talking with officers in roles which may already be tapping into useful self-directed neuroplasticity techniques, such as in firearms training.
 Michael Rowe, Introduction to Policing, 2014: SAGE.
[i] Michael Taft, Neuroscience Summit, 2017.