Controlling the Brain’s Basement from Its Balcony

In an emergency, you need to go to your mental balcony and see the whole situation.

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Elon Musk didn’t exactly have a great summer. With the world watching, he spent sleepless nights on the factory floor of Tesla, troubleshooting glitches. Exhausted, he impulsively tweeted that he planned to take Tesla private—then later changed his mind.

It was a classic example from the what-not-to-do book of leadership. When the headwinds are high, an executive particularly needs to stay calm and clearheaded, if only to take in all the relevant information, understand it deeply, and respond with agility, while reassuring employees at the same time. Back in the day when Intel made the chips inside every laptop, its then-CEO Andrew Grove confessed that there were two times the company could have vanished—once when they realized only too late that Japan was producing Intel’s computer chips much more cheaply, and another when they released a flawed chip. What made the difference between corporate life and death, Grove reflected, was how the top team handled their emotions: If they had panicked or denied the reality, Intel might well have been out of business.

Neither Musk nor Grove may have been aware that their amygdala was at play in both their crises. Think of the amygdala—the brain’s trigger for responding to threats—as the doorway to an emotional “basement.” The amygdala rests low in the brain, amid circuitry for emotion, just between our ears. If the amygdala senses a threat, it floods us with hormones like cortisol that prepare us biologically for fight-or-flight, and we feel surges of emotional turbulence like fear or anger.

But circuitry in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, high up, just behind the forehead, can just say no to those surges from down below. Think of this as the brain’s “balcony.”

The events that trigger the amygdala—say, that coldness from your boss—unleash a cascade of neural dominoes that can hijack the parts of the prefrontal cortex that let us think of what to do. During an amygdala hijack, in fact, we find it hard to think clearly or to focus on anything other than that upsetting trigger. And if we get hijacked continually, we enter a state neurobiologists call “frazzle.” We’re trapped in the basement.

Our brains are designed to privilege the amygdala; the more activated that neural basement, the less well the brain’s executive center, or balcony, can operate. In an emergency, of course, you need to go to your mental balcony and see the whole situation and respond in ways that take it all into account, as I’ve been told by an executive whose group manages responses to catastrophes like hurricanes. The challenge, of course, comes from the knee-jerk response to go to the basement, from where we respond rigidly rather than nimbly. Indeed, when the amygdala hijacks us and drags us down to the basement, we do and say things that we are very likely to regret later.

Research in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience reveals that an amygdala hijack sends a flood of stress hormones through the brain, and these neurochemicals cause a drop in innovative, flexible thinking. The paradox here: Emergencies, like any other challenge, demand our most innovative thinking. That just does not happen while we dwell in the basement; there, we operate on autopilot, unable to make choices that work best.

One suggestion is to take a drug that blocks the stress reaction, like the stage-fright dampening beta-blocker, propranolol. Trouble is that drug might make us so mellow we’d lose our sense of urgency, an invaluable driver in facing emergency.

Here’s another idea: Mindfulness done daily grooms the brain’s self-regulation circuits, including the parts of the prefrontal cortex that can quiet the amygdala. Of course, you need to do that regularly—like working out in a gym—so you can call on that circuitry to help you stay away from the basement and scan your options from the balcony.

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