We’re All Gonna Die! (And Other Stories Your Emotional Brain Tells You)

Barb Krantz TaylorBy Barb Krantz Taylor

sabertoothtigerYou’ve heard about the “fight-or-flight” response. It’s the result of an instantaneous flood of neural activities in your brain that we become aware of through a host of bodily, intellectual and emotional reactions. That is, we notice something—perhaps not even consciously—and our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes shallower, we can’t decide what to do, or we feel angry or afraid, and/or we just get the heck out of the way as fast as possible!

I apologize to my physician friends for my rather simplistic understanding of the brain, but here is the physical reason this occurs: What we think and feel are all caused by real, biological, neuro-electrical and neuro-chemical “firings” in our brain. For the past 10-plus years, we can now see the results of these firings via an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). fMRIs actually show where oxygenated blood flow increases in the brain following neural activity (thoughts and feelings included). And tracing neural activity in the brain shows that the “emotional centers” of the brain (e.g., amygdala, limbic system) are stimulated BEFORE the intellectual centers (e.g., cortex, pre-frontal cortex—aka the executive brain).

So, why the science lesson? Because, whether you recognize them or name them, we FEEL emotions first, then our intellectual brain kicks in. Granted, the time lapse isn’t significant, but it’s important because ALL of us have feelings that affect our thoughts and thoughts that affect our feelings ALL THE TIME!

And when our emotional brain tells us “we’re all gonna die,” we feel as if it is true. What is also significant is that it isn’t just saber-toothed tigers that trigger the fight-or-flight response; it’s social situations. Yes, social situations can trigger the same survival instincts in your emotional brain as physical threats do! Your “logical” brain recognizes that someone neglecting to return your email could be due to all sorts of legitimate reasons, but our emotional brain goes into survival mode wondering if the reason could be as “bad” as it feels.

David Rock developed the SCARF model that describes the five social situations that trigger survival reactions in the emotional centers of our brain. When we feel threatened in any of these areas, our emotional brain may feel it is in grave danger. Here is a short summary:

  • Status: ranking or importance
  • Certainty: predictability, patterns
  • Autonomy: control, choice
  • Relatedness: inclusion, teamwork
  • Fairness: distribution of rewards/recognition

So, the lesson here is whenever one of these social triggers is pulled by someone, even inadvertently, our emotional brain essentially thinks it might die, or at least suffer great harm. If we are not able to employ the logical centers of our brain to cope with this, that is when we often make emotionally unintelligent decisions. And this is where most leaders derail. Not in the intellectual/logical parts of our brains but in the emotional ones.

If you haven’t yet read the book “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock, do so! It’s based in real neuroscience yet readable and applicable to leadership. It can teach you techniques to learn from your emotional brain and be able to recruit your executive brain to be a better leader. If you would prefer not to read the whole book, just reach out and we can talk.