June 2018

Understanding your brain in a crisis

  • By Dr Paul Gibson, Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Business and Law, RMIT University

When confronted with an emergency, the human brain can behave in a way that seems rational but may in fact be disastrous. Understanding our thought processes and brain behaviour can help us make positive decisions in a crisis.

The mining industry can be remarkably hazardous. Understanding how the brain operates during a crisis can help leaders to think more clearly and to effectively manage emergencies – including mining emergencies. In this article, I outline some ideas about managing hazards and emergencies that I have previously presented to members of the Melbourne Metropolitan Fire Brigades Board and the Victorian State Emergency Services.

Two central facts about your brain are key to understanding how it operates in a crisis: the first is that your brain has a tripartite structure.

The cerebellum, or brain stem, is similar in structure to the reptilian brain and it controls the fight, freeze or flee responses when confronted with a crisis.

The limbic system is in the mid area of the brain. It functions much like the brains found in other mammals and is responsible for emotional reactions.

Finally, located on top of your brain is the neocortex, which is part of the cerebral cortex and is involved in higher-order functions that we associate with being human, such as language, spatial reasoning and logic.

In times of stress, the cerebral cortex can be emotionally hijacked by the limbic system or the brain stem. When this happens, reactions are dictated by the cerebellum or limbic system before the neocortex can moderate or control those reactions. This explains why some leaders panic during a crisis, even though that can be the worst time to panic.

Fortunately, it is possible for the cerebral cortex to regain control. You’ve probably heard of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after both of the plane’s engines were damaged. If you were to listen to the communication between Sullenberger and the air traffic controllers during the emergency, you’d be surprised by how calm he sounds.

Similarly, mining leaders need to be able to recognise what’s happening around them and within them during a crisis and practise what airline pilots call ‘deliberate calm’. In other words, being aware that your body is in a state of panic, but not acting on those feelings.

Pilots practise and develop their capacity for deliberate calm during simulation training, and if Chesley Sullenberger managed to remain calm after losing both engines and with 200 people on board, it follows that it must be possible for leaders in other emergencies to learn how to stay calm. Part of doing this involves having sufficient emotional intelligence to know the difference between those times when we should listen to and be moved by our emotions, and those times when we should discount and override our emotions. Deliberate calm also involves practising the act of discounting and overriding your automatic emotional response again and again until it feels as familiar as the other skills that we have mastered through practice.

The second central fact about your brain in a crisis is that it constantly and automatically seeks to predict the future, at least in the short term. Of course, this predictive nature of the brain is a great advantage for humans. Without that ability, we’d be constantly crashing our supermarket trolleys into other shoppers or bashing into other vehicles before we have even left the car park. However, like most advantages, there is an accompanying disadvantage: because we unconsciously focus on what we expect to happen, we can be slow to notice what is actually happening – particularly when we are confronted by the unexpected.

A simple example will help to explain what I mean. Think about the amount of automatic prediction that is involved in catching a ball. Your brain needs to estimate the speed at which the ball is travelling and the arc along which it moves in order to predict where and when your hands need to be when the ball is close enough to catch. But if you ask someone who has just caught a ball ‘How did you work out where and when to place your hands?’ the usual answers are ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I just kept my eye on the ball’.

Now consider this straightforward arithmetic task: if I had a bat and a ball and you wanted to buy the ball, I’d ask you how much you want to pay. You might say ‘Well, how much did you pay for the ball when you first bought it?’ Suppose I answer that ‘together the bat and the ball cost me $1.10, and the bat cost one dollar more than the ball, so how much did the ball cost?’

Most people quickly arrive at the obvious answer of ten cents; but this is incorrect. What seems obvious
because of our brain’s predilection for prediction can often lead us into error.

To most people, this task sounds like a simple matter of subtracting one dollar from $1.10 so we decide that ten cents is the answer. Our brain’s tendency to take advantage of past experiences to understand the present, rather than taking the time to listen carefully to the details of the situation, trips us up. If the ball did cost ten cents, then the bat has to cost one dollar more than that, which is $1.10 – so together the bat and the ball would have cost $1.20, not $1.10. The correct answer is that the ball cost five cents, so the bat cost one dollar more, which is $1.05 and together they cost $1.10.

Now think about when this tendency to understand the present in terms of the past could be helpful during a mining crisis, and when it could be disastrous. The unexpected errors and events that occur during an emergency often require fast thinking and action from those who are caught in the middle of it – but that fast thinking has to be alert and fully conscious thinking, not automatic thinking.

You’ve probably seen the famous clip on YouTube of a group of young men playing basketball while someone wearing a bear suit walks casually from one side of the screen to the other. Most viewers do not see the bear (why would they – our brains do not expect to see a bear in the middle of a basketball game) until they are asked to look carefully to see if anything unusual is happening!

That clip and similar examples demonstrates what a powerful impact the expectations predicted by our brains can have on our ability to clearly see what is happening around us. This is one of the reasons why critical incident debriefings are so important. When teams spend the time to share their perceptions of what happened during an emergency, and in particular share their experiences of what surprised them, the members of that team are alerted to the fact that everyday expectations cannot be relied upon during a crisis.

Responding appropriately to crises as a leader requires training and practice, but it also requires an understanding of how humans and our brains operate, especially during times of stress.

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