How the Human Brain Functions on Fear

In response to the tragic Boston Marathon bombings that occurred on April 15, 2013, thousands of people across the nation expressed great grief and anger at this terror strike. While this anger was justified, the fear that accompanied further repercussions of the bombing was perhaps a bit disjointed.

Currently, there is a great amount of debate centering the topic of human responses to fear. Repercussions of the Boston Marathon bombing included numerous rapid responses.

Such responses included every day citizens immediately volunteering to assist law enforcement in managing the destruction and caring for the wounded, however, such responses also included anger and prejudice. So what causes such a range of responses in such unstable situations? The answer lies within the distinctive pathways of the brain.

Tumultuous situations often elicit radical and irrational consequences. Dr. Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy in Texas speculates that responses to terror situations shut down the smartest parts of the brain.

The frontal lobe is amongst the smartest parts of the brain, located just behind the forehead. This area of the brain is responsible for consciously evaluating the most logical or beneficial responses to a situation while also balancing its risks and rewards according to brainline.org.

Because the frontal lobe is such an advanced feature of evolution, it takes a great deal of time to fully develop. Consequently, the ability to accomplish its tasks requires a great deal of attention and unfortunately, when subjected to intense fear or terror, numerous pathways crossing the frontal cortex more or less shut down.

In the presence of fear, what becomes increasingly active in place of the frontal lobe is the limbic system. The limbic system is a much more primitive structure of the brain compared to the frontal lobe and it functions primarily in emotions and motivation for survival. This response is evolutionarily advantageous in terms of a primitive emergency, such as being chased by a predator.

Biology professor, Cara Muscio, said, “The way our brain reacts to fear has been an instrumental adaptation in our evolution. Deliberating in front of a hungry predator is not an effective survival strategy, so sometimes a quick reaction, even if it isn’t always the best one, is necessary for survival.”

She added, “However, in our culture, something that seems overwhelmingly senseless and terrifying, like a public bombing, doesn’t exactly fit the type of issue our ancestors were facing. The prolonged activation of fear pathways, and ensuing hyper-vigilance after such an event may lead to more negative consequences like increased anxiety and emotionally-charged reactionary responses.”

As Muscio points out, primitive reactions to fear-instilled situations seem out of place today. Therefore, instead of helping us run away from danger, our fear is displaced by taking irrational actions, which in modern society results in prejudice.

Sophomore chemistry major Sana Rashid said, “Understanding the physiology of the brain in the state of fear has provided me with an insight into how our cognitive skills are compromised and more dependent on our emotions rather than on our reasoning abilities. We tend to generalize and point blame without reservation.”

Rashid added, “Relating that to the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon, it is sad how quickly some resorted to calling the culprits ‘Muslim terrorists’ when other recent ‘terrorists’ have not been identified by their religion, but just labeled as psychopaths. The ‘us vs. them’ mentality will resort to no good.”

On the other hand, perhaps this motivation for survival can lead to sudden responses that are actually beneficial. Many reported high pressure situations have occurred where individuals were able to act with an aptitude and finesse they may have lacked otherwise.

Freshman chemistry major Jennifer Zuczek said, “It seems logical for the brain to shut down in a way when terror is presented. It’s this feeling of doom that takes over the brain and causes people to not think rationally. I know there have been plenty of times when I’ve been driving and became paranoid if I was being followed home late at night.”

Zuczek believes the media plays a large role in our reactions. “We live in a world where television and films highlight crimes in the U.S. and around the world. It doesn’t help the situation when horrible events like what happened at the Boston Marathon become reality. In the end, it doesn’t seem like a bad thing that the brain only shuts down in times of terror. It’s the rapid thinking that follows in the end that could save lives,” said Zuczek.

Overall, although human responses to chaotic situations may vary, there is evident similarity in our brain functioning across time and space. Because times of turbulence bring their own share of violence, perhaps the only solution is to use the rational and fore-thinking parts of our brain as often as possible so that we may avoid further conflicts and be prepared to respond morally and rationally in overwhelming situations.

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