Disclaimer: While this post was tragically prompted by events in Mina, Saudi Arabia, the fundamental idea applies to human behavior and the human brain in general terms across all countries and cultures.
I was at an event several years ago and overheard a researcher say something to the effect of, “We’re not that far removed from the caves.” Surely, a provocative statement at first blush, but stay with it a while longer and apply it to the events going on in the world today (heck, possibly over ALL of human existence) and you might begin to see his point.
In fact, I was reading a New York Times article just this morning (Sep 25, 2015) related to the human tragedy in Mina, Saudi Arabia in which hundreds of pilgrims were killed or injured in a mass stampede during the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The article I’m referencing mentioned other similar tragedies of human panic, stampedes, and deaths: Duisburg, Germany in 2010 and Cincinnati, Ohio in 1979 to name two.
The article goes on to mention several factors that may have contributed to the tragedy: uncertainty, fear, panic, heat, exhaustion.
What’s the link to neuroscience?
All of these factors–considered threats to the brain–can quickly trigger the limbic system’s “fight or flight” response and shut down (or significantly impair) our higher level cognitive functioning. Normally, a stampede is something you equate with animals. But when humans panic, our brain functioning becomes very automatic and reactive, much like an animal reacts to a threat–not much thought, just action.
Tragedies like the one in Mina are terrible reminders of what can go wrong when our reptilian brain takes charge of the show and makes decisions for us (according to the scientists, as much of 95% of our daily behavior in non-conscious).
Our failure to notice and manage (i.e., regulate) these inner signals can be catastrophic. It is our ability to be aware of these quick shifts in our brain state and regulate them that can literally be the difference between life and death.
And that brings us back to the subject of this post, “We are not that far removed from the caves.” While examples abound about this propensity, it turns out that there is a silver lining (as I often find when it comes to the human brain). Most of the time, crowds can get it right in the face of threat and danger. We can leverage the brain’s neuroplasticity (ability to change itself) and strengthen our self-awareness, social awareness, and self-regulation muscles and maintain a more cognitive response to danger.
Put another way, we can gain a little more “distance from the caves” and continue our higher evolution as humans. (Stay tuned for how…)
Photo credit: © FabioBerti Dreamstime.com
“There is a very long history within psychology of people not being very good judges of what they will actually do in a future situation.”
These words are from Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D., the co-founding father of the field of social cognitive neuroscience, the Director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, and the author of the book “Social.”
Why is his statement important?
Because the field of neuroscience, including Matt and his colleagues’ pioneering work, is helping us to better understand what is going on in our very unique and complex brains. And things are not always what they appear to be.
And why is that important?
Because all of us want results: in life, at home, at work, in school. We are all trying to achieve something, and if you understand the brain and know how to work with it—instead of against it—you can improve your chances.
How do I know that?
Because I’ve spent the past 10 years learning to understand the brain, how it functions, its limitations, what is common among us, and what is different between us when it comes to what is literally inside of our heads. I’ve delivered hundreds of programs to thousands of people and watched transformations take place when people learn how to honor the brain (which, by the way, honors the person to whom that brain belongs!).
What am I talking about?
Did you know that the brain is wired to be empathetic to people who share our racial group. This is linked to our very primal and basic need to survive (if he looks like us, he’s probably safe). We think—and say—we are sensitive to the pain of those who are not like us but the brain tells a different story. In a study that examined the empathetic pain reactions of two ethnic groups, each group was more empathetic to the “pain” of their own racial group, despite reporting a similar reaction to the other racial group’s pain. As one study  puts it, “Race has been demonstrated as a feature impossible to ignore in facial processing ,–, even when race is implicit and not relevant to the participant’s task. Thus, it is possible that race may cause an automatic and bottom-up bias in empathic neural activation to pain. It may be that the neural processing for differentiation of race operates at a more basic level than broader social distinctions. “
What they mean by “bottom-up” you can think of as unconscious or automatic behavior. Another way of putting it is the brain has made a choice without your involvement. And that unconscious choice is informing your behavior. When you understand what is happening, you can begin to employ tactics to overcome this kind of automatic brain functioning. This is particularly of value when you look at what is happening in current day America.
Another fundamental idea we work with is based on Evian Gordon’s 1-2-4 Integrate Model . The “1” in Evan’s model refers to the brain’s “primary organizing principle,” which is to minimize danger and maximize reward. This principle leans strongly to the favor of minimizing danger and is a powerful example of our dominant need to survive. It also links back to Matt’s work in that many of the dangers we face are social, rather than physical, in nature. And these social threats place us in a state of conspicuously low cognitive functioning.
In essence, we become automatic when faced with “social threats” and end up doing and saying things that don’t often work in our favor—although they do keep us alive, from the brain’s perspective.
We help leaders and managers learn how to better manage social threats, maintain cognitive functioning AND improve the nature of their interactions so they achieve the things that are most important to them.
Put another way, it’s not just about surviving—it’s about truly living.