I’ve had the chance to explore the science of heroism from the perspective of a brain-imaging researcher and a psychiatrist. Based on my findings, I believe that heroes do, in fact, have ‘heroic’ brains. In crisis situations such as a fire, a medical emergency, or a break-in, alarm bells go off in the limbic, or emotional, center of the brain, stimulating us to fight or flee. Which direction a person will run depends on how their particular brain type reacts to a spike in the stress hormone cortisol, and the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans reveal that people who perform well in emergencies, such as firefighters, police officers, and EMTs, are more likely to have low-level baseline brain activity. This means that on a day-to-day basis, there’s somewhat decreased blood flow to their brains. For these folks, the chemicals that accompany a crisis actually raise brain activity to normal levels, and as a result, they feel more alert and goal -directed. They’re able to focus when others with normal or excessive baseline activity get flustered. However, in times of normal routine, low-baseline types may get bored easily. As a result, they tend to drive fast, jump out of airplanes, and put themselves in dangerous situations – it’s almost as if they need excitement in order to be focused!
So, what separates the dare-devils from the career heroes? The career heroes typically have ‘nurture’ on their side. They’re often raised by rule-oriented, disciplined parents who instill a deep respect for the law and a desire to help others, ensuring that the desire for action isn’t destructive or harmful.
My own brain, which has been scanned 8 times, is normally very active. I am not a natural hero. As an infantry medic in the Army, I drove an ambulance. I was competent, but not fast. When getting to a burning building, my mind would automatically go to “It’s hot in there!” – rather than, “Someone is hurt, go get them!” But fortunately, my cerebral wiring didn’t doom me to a life of inaction and un-heroic deeds. Just seeing my own brain scans actually helped me understand my tendency to over-think situations, and that in turn allowed me to relax.
It’s also possible for people like myself to circumvent the brain’s first instinct to freeze or panic by imagining a different outcome. When you mentally role-play, the brain lays down new neuronal tracks which help make the desired behavior more likely. For example, let’s say you’re worried that you won’t be able to protect your family in the event of a fire. Imagine saving the day, in detail: How will you wake up your children? What escape route will you take? Where will you escape to? By creating a scenario in which you are the hero and replaying that situation over and over, you’ll be more likely to act the part when it’s a real emergency and not just a fire drill.
At the Amen Clinics, we approach each individual with a sense of compassion. We can help you understand your brain and overcome any issues, before they affect your life. Call us today at 1.888.564.2700 or tell us more to schedule an appointment.