For example, you wake up in the middle of the night shivering, realize the blankets are off the bed, cover yourself and quickly fall back to sleep. The solution to this problem would come quickly and without a lot of mental effort. But instead, let’s say you are woken up by a smell you can’t identify, then realize your house is on fire. The simple transition of waking up, realizing you are cold and covering up, becomes a lot more complicated. Without adequate experience and under heavy emotional response, a quick but not necessarily accurate guess about what to do next, as in cases where the adults run out of the house and forget to get the children. With no training or experience relevant to the issue, they save themselves and forget the kids until they are safe, the brain calms, and they then realize, their kids are not safe.
Daily, we are driven by hunches from the emotional, unconscious system that guide our behavior and decisions. The “cognitive you” is basically lazy and unless driven through attention to perform a task, will usually go along with the hunches provided by the emotional systems. Scientists believe the most important function of the cognitive system is the ability of the “conscious you” to overrule these quick hunches provided by the emotional system. In response to incoming stimuli, each system of the brain asks a different question in order to come up with ideas for how-to guide decision making. The “cognitive/thinking you” asks, “What do I think about this issue?” This process is slower but more accurate than the quick hunches of the emotional system. The “feeling/emotional you” asks, “How do I feel about this issue?” This is a faster, easier answer to process but not necessarily an accurate response.
Recently, I have repeatedly heard people from across the political divide say that what they feel about an issue is more important than facts and the truth. These, my friends, are incredibly dangerous lines of thinking because the “feeling you” cares about yourself and people you consider to be part of your in-group to the detriment of everyone else. This is an unconscious driver of behavior and some of the same neurochemicals that enhance your connection to an in-group, can make you downright evil towards anyone in your out-group. We are all driven by these systems and a lack of understanding of these systems is currently driving the vitriol in politics, social media and in our day-to-day existence. A fundamental understanding of these brain systems gives the conscious you the ability to overrule some of the hunches of the emotional system.
Now, here is where is gets even more complicated; Without time constraints and pressure, it’s easy to spend time thinking about an issue and seeking facts to guide you to the best idea of the truth regarding the matter in question. But, under pressure and time constraints or excessive emotional stress, the emotional system (where the fight or flight responses are directed) attempts to take control and blood flow goes where the action is. Blood flow to the emotional brain diminishes blood flow to the thinking brain and vice versa. Under perceived threat by either stress or the pressure of a situation, the brain may default to the best guess of the emotional brain.
For law enforcement officers or anyone in a perceived or real-life threatening situation, these best guesses can lead to tragedy. Why? Because of the substitution of the easier question, “How do I feel about this?,” instead of the more accurate, “What do I think about this?” When you are scared, overly excited, stressed out or overly anxious, the emotional brain wants to answer the easier question. What is the answer of how you feel about something like a suspect’s hands moving to his waistband area while resisting a lawful arrest? If the answer is, threatened, what do you think the quick hunch will be?
Keep in mind that the same processing going on in the officer’s brain is also going on in the suspect’s. The suspect’s brain, under the stress and pressure of the situation, may default to the easier question, “How do I feel?” And, if the answer is, “I don’t want to go to jail.” He fights to keep his hands away from the officer by keeping them close to his body. The suspect thinks, “I can’t be handcuffed if I want to escape.” The officer’s hunch is that the suspect is hiding a gun. And here is the dirty secret; If the emotional brain is overly stimulated past a certain threshold unique to each individual, the emotional brain may tell you and show you exactly what it needs to in order to initiate a survival response. In these cases, the thinking you may be completely shut off momentarily. And there you have the anatomy of a mistake of fact shooting.
I wrote the book, Taming the Serpent: How Neuroscience Can Revolutionize Modern Law Enforcement Training, to address some of these issues as I truly believe the future of law enforcement is training geared toward how the brain interprets information and drives decision making. In the course of studying these ideas as they relate to law enforcement, I found the same ideas relevant to every one of us in our day to day experiences.