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THE LEADING BRAIN
In the 2006 World Cup Final between France and Italy, it was Zizou who put France on the scoreboard with a penalty kick that ricocheted off the crossbar and landed behind the goal line. Twelve minutes later, Italy's feisty center fullback Marco Materazzi evened the score at 1-1 by deftly heading in a deflection off a corner kick.
After 90 minutes of fierce play from both sides, Zidane and Materazzi still accounted for the only goals. What happened next was both controversial and devastating. Two thirds of the way through extra time, as the two men jogged by each other, they both stopped briefly and Materazzi tugged at Zizou's jersey. Although Zidane seemed at first to be walking away from the confrontation, he suddenly turned to face Materazzi and threw himself at him with full force, knocking him to the ground with a violent head butt to his chest.
Fans all over the world watched in utter disbelief. It's not clear whether any of the referees personally witnessed the incident, but the act was so brazen and breathtakingly unsportsmanlike that officials felt they had no choice. Zinedine Zidane was issued a red card and ousted from the match.
Deprived of its leader as well as one of its most skillful penalty kickers, France lost in the shootout round, and Italy emerged as the 2006 World Cup champion. Although soccer is a game of great complexity and a certain amount of luck, it could be reasonably argued that a few-seconds lapse in one man's emotional regulation cost his country a world championship.
Our Primitive Networks
It may not have had the violence or the international profile of Zidane's infamous head butt, but perhaps you've witnessed an emotional outburst at work that was nearly as devastating. Who knows? You may even have been the instigator. If you were, you almost certainly felt regret once you calmed down. Many people who experience lapses in emotional regulation ask themselves the same question, »What was I thinking?!«
Granted, that question is meant to be rhetorical, but it still has a neuroscientific answer: You weren't actually thinking. You were reacting. Emotional outbursts occur when the more civilized, conscious region of your brain is hijacked by a more powerful, primitive and largely unconscious part. It's just one skirmish in a constant battle between your prefrontal cortex and your limbic system, which is the source of your two most fundamental responses. As humans, we are capable of displaying a remarkable array of emotions. Yet most of them grow out of just two very basic and very primitive networks in our brains: the threat circuit and the reward circuit.
The Threat Circuit: Stayin' Alive
Although the brain exhibits an impressive number of skills and abilities (everything from sinking a putt to deciphering an income tax form), make no mistake: its primary business is to keep you alive. So you'll have to forgive it for being a little over-sensitive whenever it gets even an inkling of something that might put you in jeopardy. Like a bodyguard with an itchy trigger finger, it shoots first and asks questions later.
Many of the threats that primitive humans faced are no longer a factor, but the software that was designed to respond to them is still up and running. Instead of replacing our outmoded survival instincts with newer ones, our modern brain was actually built on top of our caveman-era thinking system. And because our older brain systems are more entrenched and more powerful, they are usually the first to react to any stimulus we encounter. What this means is that the suave, well-dressed, college-educated employee in your company meeting room is apt to react like an angry, bearskin-wearing, club-wielding savage if you happen to push the wrong buttons.
Now that saber-toothed tigers are extinct, we may mistakenly feel as though we live in a safer world, when in fact the situations that can trigger a stress response have increased dramatically: The unexpected message from your superior who needs the concept within the next hour; the client who calls and is "totally dissatisfied with the proposal"; the colleague who "helpfully" informs you that he's getting promoted next month and that you aren't; the calendar alarm that tells you there are now only two days left until the client visit takes place. And then, just when you think nothing else could possibly go wrong, you get a call from the school, notifying you that your 10-year-old is sick and will need to be sent home.
When we see something that we perceive as putting our survival in danger, we react, quickly and often unconsciously. The car that suddenly darts out into our lane and the coworker who questions our competence are both treated in remarkably similar fashion by our brains. They have both been perceived as challenges to our current existence. In the case of the car, we should be grateful that we're equipped with such a hair-trigger alarm system. We hit the brakes or swerve suddenly to avoid an accident and we usually do it so quickly that our conscious mind doesn't catch on to what we're up to until our unconscious reaction has already occurred. Our heart beats faster, our senses become more alert, our long-term cognition is momentarily shut down, and our focus is suddenly laser-like. We avert disaster and only realize it after the fact by the pounding in our chest or the sweatiness of our palms.
The ability to instantly avoid an oncoming car can literally save our lives. In contrast, our response to a social snub is rarely life-saving these days. That's not because it isn't as quick as our reaction to a car. It's just that our lives were probably never in jeopardy when a colleague asked pointed questions about a discrepancy in our monthly report. Our executive brain almost certainly realizes it, but by the time it does, our threat circuit has already kicked in, responding to the coworker almost exactly the same way it would if she were an oncoming car.
The net result is remarkably similar: pounding heart, sweaty palms, increased alertness, and a momentary lapse in our more reasonable faculties. As humans in a reportedly civilized society, this is a decidedly precarious moment. Keep in mind that the colloquial name for our brain's threat circuitry is the "fight or flight response." The primitive urge to fight when challenged may be instinctive, but unless you're a kick-boxer or a professional wrestler it is almost always unacceptable in a civilized social context. Unless our executive functions can quickly intervene like a referee with a whistle, there's a real danger that like Zinedine Zidane we'll do something we will truly regret. And yet if we try somehow to tamp down our instinctive emotional response, the damage we do may not be quite as spectacular, but it can be nearly as detrimental and long-lasting -- and even more dangerous to our health.
For the most part, our bodies are more inclined to protect us from threats than to seek out rewards. When you think about it, this makes evolutionary sense. Although pursuing rewards can be advantageous and pleasurable, our very survival can depend on dealing with threats. We may think of stress primarily as a bad thing, but there's no escaping this fact: you are alive today because your ancestors had a threat response that didn't let them down when they needed it most.
The famous line from the Sunday comic strip »Pogo« is truer than cartoonist Walt Kelly may have ever realized. Although poisonous plants and animal predators have always shifted us into threat mode, from an evolutionary perspective, our biggest enemies are other people. Granted, we may not always consciously feel this way, but our unconscious is wired to respond with a high level of suspicion to anyone we perceive as an outsider.
The explanation dates back to the dawn of humankind. In fact, until relatively recently, humans lived in small groups, typically 50 people or fewer. It was a difficult and dangerous world and our lives frequently depended on maintaining good relationships with the people in our particular tribe.
Then, just as now, not everyone got along all the time. If you discovered that someone within your group took a particular disliking to you, it could put you into a potentially life-threatening predicament. After all, the next time your tribe was attacked by an enemy tribe, you might find yourself next to your nemesis. Rather than coming to your aid, he could betray you. Or he might simply choose to run away to save his own life, leaving you at the mercy of your enemies. Then again, he might set aside old grudges and join with you in beating back the attackers. Which path would he take? Our ancestors were frequently faced with this sort of dilemma. It could be difficult to predict but essential to determine. For the sake of your own survival, you needed to be acutely aware of even the subtlest cues to decide whether you had someone you could trust by your side.
Modern conflicts may be more civilized and sophisticated, but we've retained the primitive wiring that makes us extra-sensitive to small potential threats from the people around us. And our suspicions aren't limited to the field of battle. This explains why telling your spouse once in 20 years that you love him or her is unlikely to gain you a two-decade grace period, especially if in the meantime you overlook a key anniversary, throw out a beloved souvenir, or make the classic mistake of responding honestly to the question, »Does this outfit make me look fat?«
This tendency to place greater emphasis on threats than rewards is more than just stressful or annoying. It may actually be devastating to long-term relationships. In fact, University of Washington psychologist John Gottman claims to be able to predict the success or failure of a marriage with an astounding 83 percent accuracy, simply by analyzing a fifteen-minute conversation between the couple. Gottman's research points to a »magic ratio« of 5 to 1, which suggests that for every negative feeling or interaction between partners, there must be five positive feelings or interactions to offset them in order to ensure a successful marriage.
Of course, married couples aren't the only people with threat and reward circuits. We all have them. The extra weight we give to threats also explains why your boss's many heartfelt compliments about your performance can be overwhelmed by a single offhand remark about an area that »needs improvement.« Rewards are intense but short-lived. A threat never forgets.
Excerpted with permission from The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance by Friederike Fabritius, M.S. and Hans W. Hagemann, Ph.D. © 2017 by Friederike Fabritius and Hans W. Hagemann. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.