Does The Smartest Part of Your Brain Shut Down When You Are Scared?

(Time) How Terror Hijacks the Brain

By April 16, 2013

Fear short circuits the brain, especially when it hits close to home, experts say— making coping with events like the bombings at the Boston Marathon especially tricky.

“When people are terrorized, the smartest parts of our brain tend to shut down,” says Dr. Bruce Perry, Senior Fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy. (Disclosure:  he and I have written books together).

When the brain is under severe threat, it immediately changes the way it processes information, and starts to prioritize rapid responses. “The normal long pathways through the orbitofrontal cortex, where people evaluate situations in a logical and conscious fashion and [consider] the risks and benefits of different behaviors— that gets short circuited,” says Dr. Eric Hollander, professor of psychiatry at Montefiore/Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York.  Instead, he says, “You have sensory input right through the sensory [regions] and into the amygdala or limbic system.”

This dramatically alters how we think, since the limbic system is deeply engaged with modulating our emotions.  “The neural networks in the brain that are involved in rational, abstract cognition— essentially, the systems that mediate our most humane and creative thoughts— are very sensitive to emotional states, especially fear,” says Perry. So when people are terrorized, “Problem solving becomes more categorical, concrete and emotional [and] we become more vulnerable to reactive and short-sighted solutions,” he says.

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