When The Brain Dials 911 (Book Snippet 16)

‘I froze, I simply froze. I could see everyone in the room stare at me, but I couldn’t get myself to speak. It was absolutely awful. I actually prayed the ground would open and swallow me. After what felt like an eternity, my boss got up and took over the presentation. He was kind enough to make a benign joke while jumping to my rescue. He did a good job completing the presentation, but all I could think of was that I had just made a complete fool of myself in front of the top executives of our company and our CEO. I am so ashamed!’ Glen was visibly still shaken when he recounted last week’s presentation to the board that had gone south. He was flabbergasted at his own blackout and was scared that this experience might repeat itself during the next outing.

Imagine yourself in Glen’s shoes: You have to give an important presentation before the twelve members of the top team of your organization, including your CEO. Just as you begin to speak, you notice the CEO tapping his pen on the table, wrinkling his forehead, and clenching his jaw. Your eyes take in this visual information, which is then immediately processed by your brain. What happens internally is incredibly fast and complex, but we will try to understand some of what is unfolding inside of you.

The visual stimulation received through the optical nerve is routed to a symmetrical walnut-sized and -shaped structure, located on top of the reptilian brain, called the thalamus. The thalamus can be thought of a switchboard for information that directs sensory information to the associated cortical areas as well as to the amygdala. Before relaying the information, it does a rough assessment of the incoming sensory impulses by comparing them to any information in the past. If you had an encounter with an agitated older man with a clenched jaw that resulted in unpleasant emotional or physical consequences for you (e.g. being ridiculed, criticized, or beaten), your thalamus will flag the visual information about your CEO as a potential threat. The information about possibly impending doom is dispatched to two places: the amygdala and the neocortex.

The amygdala (the Greek word for almond) consists of two almond-shaped structures, one in each half of the brain embedded within the limbic system. The limbic system is an important centre for emotions (sometimes referred to as the feeling brain) while the amygdala is a key, yet by far not the only, player when it comes to detection of and response to threats. If the amygdala is damaged, a dampened response to a threat is often the consequence, while the feeling of fear is remains intact because fear is a product of cognitive processes in the neocortex. When we are exposed to a threat, the neural activity in the amygdala is heightened and our internal panic button is pushed; we are kicked into our survival responses of fight, flight, or freeze.

In case of actual or anticipated danger, our body tries to get away from or terminate the threat by engaging first in a fight or flight reaction. If neither fight nor flight is an option, we go into freeze in order to dampen the physical impact, numb us to the potentially painful stimulus, and save energy by reducing our bodily functions to the bare minimum.

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Coaching CEOs and founders to re-invent their organisation as a Conscious Tribe | Engaged employees | Executive Coaching: