What Messages Do I Pay Attention To? // Understanding the tug of war in our brain
It is in this struggle between the upstairs and downstairs brain that we can begin to understand what is happening with the question posed (See part one)
. While immensely complicated both psychologically and physiologically, this conflict is the core of the issue. It is hard to make a rational threat/risk appraisal when the brain is locked in this tug of war. The amygdala's neighbor, the hippocampus, tries to aid the upstairs brain by bringing context appraisal to the situation, but it too can be overrun. We are now discovering that over time if we are exposed to too much trauma and too many danger situations the hippocampus actually begins to falter and become less effective in its role. People who have been exposed to a lot of danger, especially during childhood, are more likely to struggle to keep the upstairs brain engaged and therefore may appear to be overreacting without cause. Some people, depending on their history or predisposition, can go into what is called a dissociative state, a kind of being 'checked out' from current reality state, which can explain why they may under react.
A poignant example of the workings of the amygdala and hippocampus happened a couple of years ago when I was in Haiti with a security training team working with humanitarian workers. I was in front of the class actually teaching in more detail about how the brain functions when a large truck rumbled past the building. The building vibrated slightly and I could instantly tell who had been in the earthquake or one of the aftershocks. Their amygdala reaction was obvious in their facial expressions. But then the hippocampus kicked in with a contextual appraisal as the participants could see that I and the other trainers were calm, as we were in position to see the truck go by. Their facial expressions relaxed and they could again attend to the lesson with their upstairs brain.
Have you been in a life-threatening situation? What was your “disaster personality?” Did this surprise you?
click here to go on to Part 3...