Danger intuitionJanuary 27, 2019
Risk awareness part 1: Danger intuition
Risk awareness plays a crucial role in sustaining safe behavior. The Brain Based Safety philosophy is based on what happens in our brain while perceiving a risk. A distinction is made between three different variants of risk awareness, namely danger intuition, danger sensitivity and risk understanding. We will deal with these. The topic is however too extensive for one message. For this reason, the next three messages of this blog are dedicated to this topic. This post is about the earliest alarm function of our brain: danger intuition.
Danger intuition is performed by the so-called reptile brain. This part of the brain owes its name to the fact that its construction is strikingly similar to the brain of a reptile. The reptile brain contains all the basic functions for survival such as breathing, blood supply, sexuality and the sensitivity to hazards. The reptile brain also provides a first observation. Most sensory stimuli are screened here in a superficial way before they are transmitted to other parts of the brain for detailed perception.
Awareness through a physical loop
The reptile brain works completely on an unconscious level. Language does not have access here. We personally can’t recall how this part of the brain interferes with our behavior. What we do notice is that changes occur within our bodies. For example, the first screening of a potential danger leads to an increased heart rate and blood pressure, sweating, but also cramps in the gut. Those cramps were originally intended as a warning signal for spoiled food. Intestinal cramps can drain hazardous food quickly if needed. Nowadays, the reptile brain also uses light cramps as a warning signal for a broad range of dangers. This creates the gut feeling. Thanks to this detour via the body, in second instance we get a hunch about what is happening in our reptile brain.
Hard to articulate
The gut feeling is a physical signal of an unconscious awareness of danger. Sometimes it is difficult to recognize the cause of those sensations. We then feel that something is not right, but we do not know exactly what triggers that feeling. In today’s safety management an important place is reserved for this gut feeling. Many organizations ask employees to report if they are concerned about the safety of themselves or others, even if they do not know exactly how they feel about it. If necessary, they may stop the work for a moment. However, it requires a lot of courage (and social security) to sound the alarm when one only has a vague sense of unsafety.
Danger intuition can lead to quick reactions
However, the reptile brain does not stop at observation. In case of a serious threat, it wants to get started right away. Because this part of the brain is the first to perceive the sensory stimuli, it can act even before other parts know what is going on. In addition, there are three options that are often mentioned in the same breath: fighting, fleeing and freezing. These are impulsive reactions to an external threat of which we initially are unaware. Although they are meant to respond to danger, they do not always enhance safety.
We go into fighting mode if we think we can handle the danger. In the heat of the fight, however, it is not convenient to be afraid or feel pain. That is why the reptile brain can temporarily disable our feelings of fear and pain. We lose inhibitions that we normally have. Because of this, we dare more and become more impulsive. The adrenaline turns us to very risky actions that we would never do under normal circumstances. Only after the fight do we literally and figuratively lick our wounds. Once with phrases we wonder about our actions. If we have caused an incident in this mode, we can often not explain why we did this afterwards. Danger intuition in combination with acute stress is meant to ward off danger, but can also create dangerous situations.
We get into flight mode when we think that leaving the scene quickly is the only solution. We are going to run for our lives. Here too, this flight response is controlled by the reptile brain. This means that the flight takes place without much logical reasoning. The reptile brain mainly uses automated patterns. Most automatisms are controlled from this area. In concrete terms, this means that we do not use the indicated escape route in case of a fire alarm, but instead choose the route we take every day. After all, that route is the strongest pattern in the brain. Despite yearly training, everyone in panic still runs to the front door. This evacuation exercise cannot compete with the power of the reptile brain that is in the survival mode. The only remedy against this flight behavior is to shut down the main entrance from time to time and only open the formal escape route. Only in this way does the escape route captures a firm spot amidst the automated patterns.
A third possible response from the reptile brain is freezing. This happens especially when we believe that the danger is so threatening that neither fighting nor fleeing will succeed. Stagnation is then a last option. After all, certain attackers stop if the prey does not fight back. We then feel as if we are paralyzed. We do get what happens, but we cannot react any longer. We are nailed to the ground. Only when the stress decreases somewhat, we realize that we are not responding. This can take 10 to 20 seconds. Only then do more logical options get a chance. Looking back, we wonder why we did not act. Only afterwards do words come to mind that we could not say during the freezing.
Danger intuition arises in the reptile brain and is the oldest reaction to danger. It gives us a first warning signal and makes sure that the body is ready to respond. In the event of extreme danger, it begins immediately in an unconscious mode. We summarize these impulsive reactions as fighting, fleeing and freezing.
To be continued…
The following message is about a second form of danger awareness, the danger sensitivity. This emanates from a more modern part of the brain that we call the mammalian brain. Here the role of emotion in danger is discussed.