It’s July 8, 2016. Two more innocent black men killed by the police, one in my home state of Minnesota and one in Louisiana. And then a number of police killed at a protest in Dallas. I don’t have enough words. I don’t have enough tears. I don’t have enough ways of saying Oh My God. And I certainly don’t have enough understanding, compassion or outrage, because sometimes, there simply isn’t enough.
And What The Fuck??!!?? doesn’t seem to cover it either.
So what is an amateur neuroscientist to do other than make a heartfelt plea for integration?
I’m going to step aside this awfulness for a moment and talk about my mom, because I had an insight the other day that is helping me understand things. She was a difficult person to be around a good percentage of the time. Sharp tempered, cutting, angry and scary. And she could also be funny and extraordinarily kind. Sometimes she was pissed at me for no reason and alternately, the most loving and supportive person imaginable. Really.
And so I grew up walking on the proverbial eggshells because it was hard to know which mom was going to show up, and it was better to err on the side of anticipating the angry mom. Thus I either did my best to stay out of her way or tried to make her happy or at least less angry. These are classic strategies in dealing with an unpredictable person.
So here’s the insight that came to me recently. My mom was fine—great even—when her prefrontal cortex (aka PFC) was, as we say “online.” The PFC is the last part of the brain to develop, both evolutionarily and as we grow up. It is also often called the seat of executive function, and controls such things as empathy, long-term planning, good decision-making, delaying gratification and so on. In other words, it is pretty damn critical for clear, rational thinking and decision-making.
The problem is, stress can seriously knock the PFC for a loop. Stress floods this part of our brain with too many catecholamines (such as norepinephrine and dopamine), which, while critical for PFC functioning, also need to be in proper balance for this, our highest brain, to work reliably.
In other words, when we’re overloaded by stress, forget thinking straight. We may think we’re making the right decision, but as anyone who has every sent a short sharp email in response to being triggered can tell you, often we’re not. And there is hell to pay.
Now in the business world, or even in families, the impact is often a slower toxicity. I had a lot of stuff to work through about my mom, but hey, I’m here, I’m alive, I’m able to work on it. Philando Castile is not. The impact for him and Alton Sterling and countless others of running into a person who did NOT have control over their fear and lost connection to their higher brain was death. This shit matters.
We all lose it from time to time. The PFC gets flooded and the lower brain (starring the amygdala of amygdala hijack fame) takes over. And at these times we often say hurtful things, make bad decisions, shut down or lash out. It happens. But with practice and awareness, we can work to create more integration between our amygdala (whose repertoire is pretty much limited to fight, flight and freeze) and our higher brain. In other words, begin to observe our own reactions and take steps to bring ourselves back “online” to our higher brains. Calm our reactive asses down. take a beat, take a breath, stop.
Now look, I know cops have real fears to face, especially as things keep spiraling more and more out of control and many communities experience ever-increasing polarization. I know it seems like they often have only a split second to make a critical decision. I’m not saying this is easy, and no one, especially an amateur neuroscientist like me, has THE answer. But man oh man, something has to shift. And maybe one thing we can do is help everyone learn how to fucking manage their reactive brains just a little bit better.
Because honestly, the higher brain in most people (sociopaths etc. excepted) really isn’t an asshole, but the lower brain often is. Fear, baby, it’ll kill ya.
Deepest respect to everyone, no exceptions, with love (and profanity) from Ann.