Neuroscience Tips for Navigating Uncertain Times

“This plate of cookies is for us, but that one is for the neighbors.”

My brother and I had just gotten home for Christmas vacation, and Mom was catching us up on preparations. Even as an adult, I loved this.

Suddenly, I saw my brother grab a cookie. “Mom!” I heard myself wail. “Andy just took a cookie from the neighbors’ plate!”

My family burst out laughing. I clapped my hands over my mouth. I had just told on my brother, a 6-year-old’s whine emerging from my 30-year-old’s mouth.

Primed by familiar family surroundings, I had fallen back on old behaviors.

This is a lighthearted story, but it’s a reminder of how much we’re unconsciously shaped by our environment. Given all the uncertainty and fear in our 2022 world — about Covid, the economy, the environment – it’s important to understand what’s going on in our brains and bodies.

Let’s start with brain basics. Our brains have limited processing capacity. Think of all the information coming via your senses – how your clothes feel, the room temperature, the radio, etc. Our brains have to prioritize survival-relevant information, but filter out the rest. Otherwise we’d be paralyzed by data.

So we have two information processing systems working together. System One system uses sensory input and emotions to generate quick assessments about potential threats. It creates response rules of thumb we’ve learned from others or our own experience: “if I see a man who xxxx, then I should yyyy.”

System Two is primarily the frontal cortex, where rational thought occurs. If System One alerts us upon seeing a man with a gun, System Two kicks in to determine if he is a threat or an ally.

Knowing this can help us navigate conflict.

First, we are primed unconsciously by our environment all the time via System One. We can use this fact. If I greet you with a smile or constructive words, you’re likely to reciprocate – an easy way to launch good interactions.

A friend and I saw the positive power of priming as we discussed our contrasting views of vaccine mandates. We began by agreeing our goals for the conversation: not to convert, just to understand. It was our best cross-divide conversation yet, because we’d primed ourselves to listen rather than defend.

Second, we can learn to identify our biases. Usually, we’re not even conscious of our System One rules of thumb. We can uncover them and think about how accurate they are for different situations.

Third, we can control moments when System One is too powerful. Sometimes the threat alert is strong, flooding us with emotions and preventing us from thinking rationally or creatively. This is an “amygdala hijack” and can happen in social situations as well as physical ones, such as when we feel humiliated or isolated. We become too upset to think straight and fall back on old behaviors.

When you feel that coming on, take deep breaths. Re-engage your frontal cortex, perhaps through grounding exercises, such as counting to ten. Later on, analyze what triggered you. This will help you access your rational thinking more quickly next time: “I know why I’m reacting this way, and how to handle it.”

Fourth, we can control our environment. After tasks requiring a lot of thinking or decision-making, people tend to be more aggressive and likely to lie. Our brains are too depleted to muster energy for new behaviors, so we fall back on old ones. We can avoid this by including breaks for food or even just stretching and breathing to get oxygen to the brain.

Eat a cookie – but not from the neighbor’s plate!

Melinda Burrell, PhD is a humanitarian aid worker who studies polarization and trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is on the board of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources on cross-divide engagement.