Part I : Ferguson Disaster–How the Brain can Hijack Reasonable Action in time of Threat

Daily Quote: “In the timeless classic of conflict and power, Le Morte d’Arthur, the young King Arthur is talking to Merlin about conflict. Arthur inquires, who is the aggressor, the one who strikes the first blow?  Merlin says: in conflict, opponents circle one another posturing and preparing to fight: Then one steps into the circle of combat, and in declaring his intention to fight, he is the attacker”.

Confused about Ferguson shooting? Take a look at what our brain does in conflict situation for potential answers. Ferguson Dilemma—Key questions: Who was the aggressor or instigator in this conflict?  What are the facts or evidence for what happened? What would a reasonable man do in the same situation as Officer Wilson?

Forget all the possible scenarios of what happened between Michael Brown and Officer Wilson during the shooting. The key question was What was Officer Wilson’s ability or in ability to determine in an instant what his reaction needed to be. I believe if we look at neuroscience research the answer is right in front of us. Wilson’s brain and decision-making was high jacked by the brain’s threat response—fight, flight or freeze. There’s a primal longing to conquer others and survive if the “fight” response kicks in when a person is involved in a conflict situation where they fear for the life.

In our own heads and hearts, we make ourselves righteous, and we make the other person bad and wrong. Michael Brown after the initial encounter by the car became the enemy of Officer Wilson.  Here’s why Officer Wilson made Michael Brown into the enemy — a primitive emotional trigger of the primitive brain, the fight response overwhelmed the brains executive functioning and reasoning of the pre-frontal lobe cortex of the brain. See more at 6 Seconds a blog on Emotional Intelligence

 Learn about how the brain gets hijacked in personal threat situations

According to world-renowned emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman, most of us are still acting out of the primitive fight-freeze -flight response, and that upgrade is long-overdue. Emotions make us pay attention right now– this is urgent – and give us an immediate action plan without having to think twice. The emotional component evolved very early: Do I kill, or does it kill me – you don’t sit around and Google it.” and that emotional response of the amygdala  “can take over the rest of the brain in a millisecond if threatened.

According to Goleman, the brain’s circuitry for emotional impulse outstrips the development of the “executive centers” where good sense, patience, and maturity reside. Most critically, the strip of circuits that can stop, think through consequences, and “just say no” to impulse are still immature. Maybe this the development level for both Michael Brown and Officer Wilson.


Today the threat is not a saber tooth tiger but a symbolic or physical conflict (Possible thinking of combats: Michael Brown–‘he’s not treating me fair or Officer Wilson’s thinking he is trying to get my gun and punch me.)’ but we respond with the same biological response.”Goleman calls this eruption an “amygdala hijack.” The amygdala is the center of the brain that controls this primitive “fight- freeze or flight”  response, and also controls empathy for the other person; when a person feels threatened, the brain can trigger an irrational and destructive behavior. For example, when Luis Suarez bites another player (amygdala hijack) in the World Cup game and gets 4 month suspension from soccer competition.

Zooming into the brain, our amygdala in the mid-part of the brain area called the limbic system which is shown  to play a key role in the processsing of emotions. In humans and other animals, this brain structure is linked to both fear responses and activated in conflict situations. These small almond-shaped organelles are the center of threat reaction system (TRS) of the “Fight, Freeze and Flight” syndrome.

During a perceived threat, the amygdala  begins pumping our neurohormones calling our brains and bodies to battle.  Our heart rate increases and our adrenal system activates and takes over any rational or reasonable thinking .We’re gearing up for a battle of survival. In this state, our brains our actively seeking out threat signals (the attacker is running away but he stops and starts yelling at the officer who interrupts this behavior as more threats)

Someone’s words are heard as threatening and this = danger. Mr. Browns makes a subtle move forward which is seen as a threat = danger. Officer Wilson was probably distorting reality by selecting information that reinforced his righteous position and perspective called the confirmation bias. If feels better to be right.  Literally​:  The brain gives itself a dopamine rush and reward for being certain that Mr. Brown’s behavior and actions are seen as life threats in our battle for survival and winning.

Unfortunately, in this context of reaction, in this neural war, to “win” means to beat or conquer the perceived threat of others.  To be “right” means winning by getting control and subduing others no matter what it takes. We make them wrong so we can be right​. The more stress we feel, the more likely we are to evaluate all signals coming as dangers.  The more stress we feel, the more quickly and powerfully we’ll jump into battle mode.  Unfortunately our brains love to be right –so we often distort reality and reasonableness to enhance or feelings of wanting to win and be right in this conflict situation. From the outside looking-in on this situation we say to ourselves –what is this person thinking and doing? Answer is that the officer is not thinking but has been flooded with emotions and feeling of righteousness and winning.  The only way to get back on track is to at the moment of attack pull back and try to defuse the situation. In this situation Officer Wilson needed to STOP after the first shot and regroup by saying to himself no matter what Mr. Brown does at 25 feet and wounded he is no longer a threat. He could have reinforced this by yelling STOP and adding I will get you help just lie down. This might have given everyone a second on two to pause and take less aggressive stances and maybe prevented the “kill” shots deliver by the shooter Officer Wilson. He could have challenged his confirmation bias that this another black youth looking for trouble and I need to straighten him out.


Daily Quote and Reflection: Are “SOFT SKILLS” and Emotional Intelligence the Missing Link for Your Life and Job Success in 2014?

Daily Quote:  “In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and abilities to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships.” —Dr. John Gottman–From the book:  Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

“Let’s say you work at a place that’s saturated with smarts. If all of your colleagues were always the brightest person in the room growing up, then what makes you stand out? One of the key factors for differentiating yourself from others in the workplace is the concept of emotional intelligence and self-awareness”. Drake Baer,  from Fast Company 

Reflection: Many studies are now pointing to emotional intelligence as a strong predictor of  productivity, effectiveness and success for people and the companies they work for.

To be emotionally intelligent, Goleman and other researchers say, you need to have confidence. To have confidence, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Yet what does it mean to have confidence? It means to understand and believe you have the ability and belief that you can do the things that produce positive results. When faced with a decision or choice of what to do to be successful at a task or activity you believe you have the wherewithal to use your focused concentration, experiences and talents to complete the job successfully. This underlining insight is based on what Arthur Bandura calls self-efficacy. Working from a basis of belief in yourself provides a behavioral framework or platform of “I can do this”.

Self-Coaching Challenge: So your challenge for the New Year is to assess where you are on the Emotional Intelligence scale and then put together a plan for personal and emotional intelligence. Remember you can change your level of emotional intelligence because unlike IQ and other fixed variables our EQ is malleable but it will take more self-awareness and deliberative practice to improve you EQ level.

Want to learn more about EQ read this powerful article in Fast Company called: Emotional Intelligence predicts Job Success Do You Have It?  by Drake Baer.


Are Leaders Born or Made? Focus on Emotional Intelligence

Are Leaders Born or Made?

Some evidence to help shape and challenge your thinking

In a award winning 1998 HBR article by Goleman, the Father of Emotional Intelligence, laid out many of the answers for the often asked question –Are Leader’s born or made?  

In his research and study of many large, complex and global companies, he found that while the qualities traditionally associated with leadership—such as intelligence, inspiration, toughness, determination, and vision—are required for success, they are insufficient to describe the total picture of what makes a great leader. Truly effective leaders are also distinguished by a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

These qualities may sound “soft” and not “hard” business analytics”, but Goleman found direct ties between emotional intelligence and measurable business results. While emotional intelligence’s relevance to business has continued to spark debate over the past 15 years, Goleman’s article remains the definitive reference on the subject, with a description of each component of emotional intelligence and a detailed discussion of how to recognize it in potential leaders, how and why it connects to performance, and how it can be learned. It also remains top of my mind because when I understand that emotions and feelings enrich our lives it motivates me to learn as much as I can about myself and interactions with others. EI provides me with the opportunity to see life as an opportunity to grow and develop. I am motivated to risk and be curious about what I don’t know about the human condition.  As a result I become stronger in the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical spheres of my life because I am inspired to put “continuous” learning at the center of my life rather than living in the past or fearful of the future.

I truly believe what Bertrand Russel, a great American philosopher said. To paraphrase his thoughts and idea: Most people would rather go through life “sleep walking” and not thinking about the important work of thinking deeply, problem solving and taking constructive action about the things they value most in life. Remember there are many things we can influence and control in life and there are also things we can’t; knowing the difference and choosing to do something about creating a life on purpose and with meaning is in our hands.