How Terror Hijacks the Brain

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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.”

MORE: Inside the Hunt for the Marathon Bomber

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.

Every loud sound suddenly becomes a potential threat, for example, and even mundane circumstances such as a person who avoids eye contact can take on suspicious and ominous meaning and elicit an extreme, alert-ready response. Such informational triage can be essential to surviving traumatic experience, of course.  “Severe threats to well-being activate hard wired circuits in the brain and produce responses that help us survive,” explains Joseph LeDoux, professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University, “This process is the most important thing for the organism at the moment, and brain resources are monopolized to achieve the goal of coping with the threat.”

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Says Hollander, “To some extent, that type of behavior is good because if you’re in a forest and get attacked by a snake or a lion, you want to be able to react quickly without too much thinking.” Indeed, our ancestors who spent time contemplating whether or not a risk was real more often that not would not have lived to rationalize their way through such situations again.

But once the immediate threat has passed, this style of thinking can become a hindrance, not a help. “The problem is that often people have these intense reactions and are not able to think about the situation or concept more realistically,” Hollander says.  The fear can become generalized so that ordinary experiences like being in a crowd or seeing a backpack trigger intense anxiety.

MORE: Is Human Nature Fundamentally Selfish or Altruistic?

Traumatic events typically evoke a whole suite of brain responses, such as making people faster to startle, increasing their reaction time and producing hypervigilance to any type of sensation that might be linked with the threatening experience.

And this warping of perspective is exactly what terrorists aim to achieve.  “Terrorists are trying to induce fear and panic,” says Hollander, noting that media coverage that repeats the sounds and images of the events maximizes their impact. The coverage keeps the threat alive and real in people’s minds, and sustains the threat response, despite the fact that the immediate danger has passed. The marathon attacks were particularly damaging, he says, because “All of sudden, there’s trauma associated with what had been a meaningful, communal event.”

It doesn’t help that the most common coping mechanisms can make matters worse. People who live in fear tend to want to sleep, drink alcohol or turn to sedatives to ease their anxiety. But, says Hollander, “It turns out that you are better off staying up than trying to go to sleep.” Sleep tends to consolidate and lay down traumatic memories. And that’s partly why the Israeli army, for example, tries to keep traumatized soldiers awake immediately after a difficult experience and engage them in warm social contact, both of which help reduce the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

MORE:  ‘Paradise Built in Hell:’ How Disaster Brings Out the Best in People

Fortunately, our brains are designed to modulate fear responses and at least 80% of people exposed to a severe traumatic event will not develop PTSD. Studies show that the more support, altruism and connection people share, the lower the risk for the disorder and the easier the recovery. Because such interactions aren’t always easy in the immediate aftermath of a harrowing experience, Hollander is investigating whether medications based on oxytocin— a hormone linked with love and parent/child bonding— might help to ease this connection.

If fear short circuits the brain’s normally logical and reasoned thinking, social support may be important in rerouting those networks back to their normal state. Which is why the selflessness and altruism we see in the wake of terror attacks is often the key to helping us to process and overcome the shock of living through them.

53 comments
datatect
datatect

@__CCE thats called war, happens in Syria by the hour and elsewhere. Mother Nature is terrorized by Harper and is shutting down. cheers!

bperry
bperry

And who thinks the government doesn't terrorizer people, from security theater to monitoring our computer convesations on the internet to - in a number of breakins on my system they are prime suspects - breaking into our computers. I suggest everone learn enough to read computer logs.  What were the color codes for if not to terrorize.? And what does the airport security theat and the systems implemented really do for us. Ask Bruce Schneier. We need strong privacy laws to protect us from what, in a former time during investigations of COINTELPRO, our officials actually did something about government abuses. Law abiding citizens shouldn't have to fear their government but we see the abuses all the time if we are paying attention.  

  1. I'm tired of being  being terroprized everytime I use may computer knowing what I know and what has happened here. It is becoming a totalitarian nightmare. It gets so depressing I've at times considered checking into a hospital for depression about torture, rendition and the very  little discussed surveillance of the American peop0le.

Rnt__
Rnt__

@TIME Should also find a cure for inappropriate fear and terror, it is certain an illness that damages people lives.

thewholetruth
thewholetruth

Fear is 100% natural and needed for protection, it is true that traumatic events can cause an over-firing of "neurons" in the brain. 

The brain is "Not hardwired" as is so often described, it is not a computer, it is over a trillion times better and adaptable . The brain is more plastic can  be changed for the positive

Alzheimer's patients studies showed that much of the brain can be changed and the illness reversed with a targeted diet that addressed certain parts of the brain  SEEE HERE  http://malalzheimer.blogspot.com/p/can-you-reverse-dementia-andalzheimers.html




kosovo_01
kosovo_01

@TIME Boston crminal attack bears a stamp of piggy Serbian terrorists/State of serbia has organised this dreadful terrorist attack

MarionChapsal
MarionChapsal

@DillyTalk absolutely, Cordelia! 100% right, it explains so much about fear of public speaking!

FreedTV
FreedTV

@TIME Like 911 & we still have terrorist attacks with MILS of Illegals & Offspring STILL HERE?? When does This SMART Part Return for MOST?

vhavnal
vhavnal

@TIME yes because 'FEAR' is capable of shutting down anything..

lua2685
lua2685

@TIME I wasn't aware that anyone ever used that part.

__CCE
__CCE

@datatect that happens within politics, too - look at how Team Harper wanted Canadian constantly afraid of external/internal threats...

datatect
datatect

@__CCE invoking fear is step 1 on the road to fascism. Harper is a bully and that's how bullies govern their victims, all Canadians

datatect
datatect

@__CCE it also stems from the fact that right wing ideologs cant deal w real world complexity and use pseudo moral indignation as a weapon.

__CCE
__CCE

@datatect he's a legit PM, as elected under the rules of our electoral system - sadly, the % of Canadians who didn't vote him don't matter.

datatect
datatect

@__CCE right, he is a corporate oil lobbyist, not a Canadian PM. It's a travesty

__CCE
__CCE

@datatect there's consistency in that - he started in oil, he's advocating for oil now and when he's done as PM, he'll likely go back...

__CCE
__CCE

@KreativeCanuck @datatectp don't think I'd agree with the premise of that, but we do live in fearful times.

datatect
datatect

@__CCE he grew up in Etobicoke. when he flunked out of U of T compsci his imperial oil dad got him a job in their Calgary office mail room.

__CCE
__CCE

@datatect he was a Torontonian Liberal growing up in Alberta - he felt SOME sense of exclusion... He also tends to be polar in his views.

datatect
datatect

@Beari8it @__CCE Harper had his exam and it is clear to Canada he is unfit for any national decision-making position.

datatect
datatect

@__CCE no he was never bullied. he chose a fantasy ideology doggedly and bullies any pragmatic realist. Also he suffers serious depression

__CCE
__CCE

@datatect the sad part is, Harper fits the profile of someone who's been bullied - his history supports that.

__CCE
__CCE

@datatect can't deal or don't see as relevant? Heightened emotional states reduce the world into threats, targets + irrelevancies.