Stress Makes You Stupid (The Neuroscience of Survival)

After every emergency, mass murder, or questionable use of force by police, all the armchair quarterbacks come out. From the comfort of their living room or their parents’ basement, they second-guess the people involved, and always ask, “Why’d he do this? Why didn’t she do that?”

The short answer is: because stress makes you STUPID! And if you think that being in a life or death situation won’t make YOU stupid, you’re probably wrong. Here’s why.

We all know about stress, and how bad it is. Dealing with lousy traffic, or not being able to pay your bills, or having relationship issues definitely sucks. But, normally, they are not matters of SURVIVAL.

This is a simplified diagram of your brain. Normally, we live in the cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer. It’s basically the part that allows us to think, talk, and make snarky comments on the internet.

That outer layer is wrapped around deeper structures in your brain. Several of those are grouped together into what’s sometimes called the Limbic System. This is the part of our brain that’s responsible for keeping us alive.

What armchair quarterbacks don’t realize is that in a survival situation – a true survival situation – your body pumps out hormones that take the resources that you normally use to play video games and criticize other people’s decisions, and diverts them to the part of your brain that’s in charge of making sure you don’t die: the Limbic System. Author and psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls this “flipping your lid,” since the cerebral cortex physically covers the deeper structures.

The Limbic System is primitive. It’s irrational. If the cerebral cortex is the elephant rider, the Limbic System is the elephant, and when the going gets tough, the elephant throws off the rider and does whatever it wants.

Being an elephant that lives inside your head, it only wants to do three things: FREEZE long enough to figure out whether to FIGHT or FLEE. We call this the freeze/fight/flight response.


You know how your heart rate and blood pressure go up when you get upset? The Limbic System does that to make you stronger and able to either battle or run away. Researchers have found that around 120 or 130 bpm, your senses and physical capabilities are at their peak. That’s why athletes like to get their heart rate up, before they compete.

The problem is that in a life or death situation, a normal, untrained person’s heart rate can shoot up to 200 bpm. At that level, your Limbic System basically takes over, and your higher brain functions go out to lunch. The elephant is in charge, and being a soft, first-world elephant who’s never learned what’s actually involved in survival, it usually does something stupid.

Sometimes the stupid thing works out – like when people freak out and lift cars off their kids, and then have no idea how they were able to do it. Thank you, Limbic System.

Unfortunately, more often than not, the stupid thing DOESN’T work. For example, in 1985, a plane en route from Greece to Manchester caught on fire on the runway. The pilots aborted the takeoff, and the passenges had four minutes to evacuate – plenty of time, according to traditional models. And, if the passengers had lined up nicely and marched out the exits, they all would have lived. But, because many of them panicked and tried to get out at the same time, 53 out of 131 died. That’s the flight response. Same thing goes for people running away from an active shooter. Research shows that trying to fight an active shooter is far more effective, but the elephant hears a loud noise, and it wants to run away!

On the other hand, you’ve got soldiers committing war crimes, or police engaging in brutality. That’s usually the elephant choosing the fight response, and getting super aggressive, with no elephant rider to keep it in check.

Have you ever gotten so upset that you said or did things that you regretted the next day? That’s your Limbic System overriding your cerebral cortex. You acted irrationally BECAUSE the part of your brain that LETS you be rational was not active, and now you have to deal with the consequences. Multiply that effect by an order of magnitude, and you have the poor choices that are so easy to criticize from the comfort of your computer screen.

So, how do you make better choices under stress? Basically, you can either train your elephant to act more appropriately, or you can teach your elephant rider how to stay in charge more effectively.

In martial arts, there’s a concept called “no-mindedness” – the Japanese call it Mushin. The idea is that, in combat, you don’t have time to think, you have to react by reflex, without hesitation. Cognition causes friction. If you want to survive, you need to be frictionless. The only way to do that is by practicing something so many times that it becomes a habit – something we do automatically, without thinking about it.

Interestingly, the part of the brain that forms habits – the basal ganglia – is actually separate from the parts of the brain that think and form memories. In fact, it’s part of the limbic system! People with brain damage who can’t form short-term memories can still learn habits, just through repetition, and so can everyone else. That’s how you train the elephant.

You probably already know what this feels like. For example, when you first learn to drive, you have to think about pushing the brake pedal when something pops up in front of you. After a while, you’ll hit the brakes before you even realize you’re doing it. That’s because you’ve done it enough to make pushing the brake pedal a conditioned response to the stimulus of some hazard appearing in front of your car.

In the “hierarchy of competence,” this is called moving from “Conscious Incompetence” (knowing what you’re supposed to do, but not being very good at it) to “Unconscious Competence” (doing what you need to, without having to think about it).

This is why SWAT teams and military operators spend so much time training. Under stress, your instincts take over, and if you haven’t trained your instincts by forming habits based on repeated training, they’ll get you killed.

As a civilian, you’re responsible for your own training. That’s why it’s a good idea to take a self-defense class, or some kind of martial art, not just for a few weeks, but for a period of years, so that the movements become habitual and automatic. That way, if you’re in a bad situation, you won’t have to think about what to do. Which is good, because you probably won’t be able to think!

Now there ARE a couple of ways to keep your elephant rider in his saddle. One is to consciously look around you. Sometimes this is called, “scan and assess.” The reason it works is because the elephant gets totally absorbed in one thing. By forcing yourself to see what else is going on, you break that tunnel vision, and you can think a little more clearly about what to do.

But the most basic, fundamental way to help your elephant rider is to focus on your breathing. You see, breathing is a survival mechanism governed by your Limbic System. But, unlike most of the body’s other basic functions, you can consciously control it. So, it works like a bridge. By consciously controlling it and slowing it down, you basically send feedback to the Limbic System to slow down your heart rate, which gets you back out of the non-functional, high-heart-rate danger zone, and closer to the high-functioning heart rate where you’re pumped up, but can still think a little bit.

So, the takeaway is this: You’re responsible for what you do, whether it’s your elephant or your elephant rider calling the shots. If you kill somebody else, or get yourself killed, “I’m sorry” isn’t going to do anyone much good. But neither is judging other people who had to deal with things you haven’t had to deal with.

An emergency is the wrong time to figure out what to do. You have to train the elephant in advance.

You want to develop a better fight reflex? Take a Krav Maga or some other kind of decent self-defense class. You want a more effective flight reflex? Do some parkour, or at least some regular running.

And, whenever you experience stress – even low-level stress – understand that your brain is diverting resources from the elephant rider to the elephant. When you feel yourself getting hot under the collar, your heart rate’s going up, force yourself to slow your breathing. The military calls it “Tactical breathing” – count to four on the inhale, hold it for four, and count to four on the exhale. Then keep doing it until you calm down.

If you get too upset, you’ll flip your lid, and won’t remember to calm down, so it’s important to make this process automatic. Just like blocking a punch, the only way to MAKE it automatic is to practice it so much that it becomes a habit. In other words, the best way to maintain your ability to think is to teach yourself a process you don’t have to think about.

One Reply to “Stress Makes You Stupid (The Neuroscience of Survival)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *