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.