University of Colorado Boulder scientist Steven Maier, who discovered a brain mechanism that not only produces resilience to trauma but aids in coping with future adversity, has won the 2016 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.
The award is among the most prestigious in the field of psychology and comes with a no-strings-attached $100,000 prize.
Maier, distinguished professor of psychology and neuroscience and Center for Neuroscience director at CU-Boulder, has been chipping away at this field of research for more than 40 years and began his career at CU in 1973.
His award-winning work concerns what makes one resistant or vulnerable to stress when bad things happen. Maier showed if test subjects had some behavioral control over some element of the adverse event they were less negatively impacted and became “immunized” against some harmful effects of future bad events, even if those events were uncontrollable. Through laboratory research studies, he uncovered in animal subjects the neural mechanism that provides such resilience in the face of trauma.
Maier said he was thrilled to receive the award and to join the ranks of other esteemed colleagues in psychology.
“We’re developing an understanding of what produces resilience in the face of bad events that occur so we can tell you what you can do to promote this resistance and resilience,” Maier said.
A spouse passes away, you are dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend, or fired from a job. Some people are devastated forever. Other people – even though they’re not happy for a period of time – bounce back.”
Maier said bad things happen to everyone at some point.
“A spouse passes away, you are dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend, or fired from a job,” he said. “Some people are devastated forever. Other people – even though they’re not happy for a period of time – bounce back.”
The idea that behavioral control induces resilience has become important in psychology, neuroscience and other academic disciplines, as well as clinical research and therapies for depression and anxiety disorders. Maier laid the groundwork for understanding the brain mechanism involved in how one assesses and deals with adverse events. His findings have been replicated in humans using neuroimaging techniques.
“Outside the scientific community, Dr. Maier’s idea of control and its positive effects has become part of popular thinking,” said award Director Woody Petry. “His work has applications in many areas including aging, military training, the workplace and stress-reduction practices such as mindfulness.”
Maier’s early research with colleague Martin Seligman in the late 1960s and early 1970s led them to develop the concept of learned helplessness, which suggested that when stressors are uncontrollable, a sense of lack of control is learned and reduces motivation to cope with later traumas.
However, resuming the work in the 1990s, Maier used new tools to identify the neural structures involved. He continued experiments that led to determining that the experience of control induces plasticity in particular neural circuits, and that these altered circuits are what provide protection in the future.
Five Grawemeyer Award winners are being named this week. The University of Louisville presents the prizes annually for outstanding works in music composition, ideas improving world order, psychology and education and gives a religion prize jointly with Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The 2016 winners will present free lectures about their award-winning ideas when they visit Louisville in April to accept their $100,000 prizes.
Julie Poppen is a senior news editor for the CU Office of News Services.