“We’re not that far removed from the caves.”

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????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…)

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Photo credit: © FabioBerti