From the Basement to the Balcony: Your Brain in an Emergency

I spoke recently with a psychologist who advises teams handling emergencies, including catastrophes like hurricanes. It occurred to me that a basic bit of neuroscience should adds a crucial piece in preparing for catastrophe, especially for those coordinating the response, as well as those on the front lines.

The plans for emergency, he pointed out, have to take into account the need to “go to the balcony”—that is, see the whole situation, and respond from a perspective that takes everything into account. The perennial challenge, though, is that in the press of the moment, people instead to often “go to the basement,” getting trapped in poor and inflexible responses to just one face of the emergency.

The “basement” in this sense is a neural metaphor, representing the brain’s primitive threat response system. The “balcony” represents the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that can take in information and understand it fully, and respond flexibly and effectively.

The problem, as I point out in Social Intelligence, Chapter Nine (“The Sweet Spot for Achievement”), is that in the brain’s design, the more that stress-response system activates, the less efficient the prefrontal cortex operates. In evolution this meant we responded immediately with whatever habit we had learned in the past – fight, flee, or freeze. In modern life, none of those are necessarily the best way to respond.

This is particularly the case for those in law enforcement, say, or fire-fighters – let alone those who must coordinate a complex array of agencies as they respond to unthinkable tragedies like Hurricane Katrina or 9/11.

Meeting such challenges requires cognitive flexibility, the capacity to inhibit an automatic response that does not work, and to choose an innovative one that does.

Everyone knows we need to stay calm and cool in an emergency. But the brain’s natural reaction in an emergency is to fixate on the threat and fall back on automatic responses, whether they work well in this specific situation or not. And our capacity to think nimbly and flexibly collapses.

Now a new finding in brain research tells us just why: the streams of adrenaline and related stress hormones the brain secretes in abundance directly account for our tendency to make poor choices in emergencies. A group at Ohio State University report that the noradrenergic system, which kicks in during emergencies or under threat or stress, accounts for the drop in our ability to come up with innovative solutions or responses (see: Jessica Alexander et al, 2007, “Beta-adrenergic modulation of cognitive flexibility during stress,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19, 3, 468-478).

Their study eliminates other neural systems as candidates for this foggy-mindedness. It also helps pinpoint remedies that might help emergency responders function better.

One possibility might be the beta-blocker propanolol, already widely used to overcome stage fright. That idea, however, is highly speculative – we don’t know, for instance, if the overall mellowing that drug induces might diminish another essential psychological ingredient in effectiveness, the sense of urgency.

Another possibility might be a non-chemical intervention, emotional self-regulation methods like meditation. These have been shown to strengthen the brain’s regulatory circuits for the adrenaline-triggering stress response. These methods, of course, are not to be used during the emergency, but practiced daily, a neural workout to strengthen the brain’s anxiety-control circuits so that we can remain cool, yet alert and nimble in crisis.

2 thoughts on “From the Basement to the Balcony: Your Brain in an Emergency

  1. Two things: 1. related to the last paragraph about meditation as a “neural workout”… My personal experience with meditation has lead me to conclude that meditation makes me less prone to “catching” toxic emotional states or less prone to picking up the transference without a conscious awareness of it and less prone to projecting in general. I would be curious to know if Mr. Goleman has encountered any discussion of this benefit of meditation, as well as the experiences of other meditators. 2. I work as a Behavior Specialist for the Georgia Psycho-Educational Network (a system of schools that provide educational services to Severe Emotional-Behavioral Disirdered, SEBD students). Working with this population and the behaviors they readily display leaves staff in a position of being in “the basement” or over-relying on the basement response. Your statement about how repeated low road responses or “the more that stress-response system activates, the less efficient the prefront!
    al cortex operates” is very evident in our setting. Teachers are daily faced with “emergency” situations both real and threatening and “caught” (in the contagious sense or the transference sense)as they interact so closely with students who have a PTSD type presentation as a result of their difficult lives. I try to give my teachers the solace of data and encourage/facilitate them to keep data to counteract the anectodal drama they encounter. I have often thought of introducing meditation as an alternative way to make room in their responses to the students for more creativity.

  2. Meditation definitely can help people keep a balance at times of emotional, physical and mental stress. It takes months of practice to calm the mind and attain inner peace. May I add: Yoga develops a foundation for meditation.

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