Does the brain go 'offline' when scared?

10 January 2017

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Question

Kiri asks: How do certain prefrontal cognitive functions go 'offline' during times of intense anger, fear, or distress, and can having ready access to deadly weapons when these functions are impaired be a factor in high rates of gun violence?

Answer

Chris Smith put Kiri's question to Cambridge University's Kyle Treiber...

Chris - So I guess what she’s saying is can people dissociate themselves from reality when they’ve got a gun in their hand when they know they’re going to do something evil with it?

Kyle - One of the things that she’s tapping into which is very important is that we aren’t always cognitively in control. So the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that does our really conscious, careful, deliberate thinking and one of the focuses for a lot of decision making when it comes to crime has been on this. How do people think about the cost and the benefits of their crimes and how does that weigh into whether they decide to do it or not. So we have a focus on prevention-like deterrents, trying to show people the bigger cost to their behaviours. But we’re finding that’s not working and one of the reasons that I think that is the case is because the prefrontal cortex is often not in control. But another aspect of decision making that is being tapped into in this question is the more emotive or effective control, and these are more primitive, more automatic processes in the brain. And there’s actually parts of the brain that decide whether they pull in this cognitive prefrontal aspect or not and in a case when someones under extreme fear, under extreme stress, the brain doesn’t have the time, the effort to bring in those processes. So instead, it relies on more automatic behaviours, habits, instincts in some cases and so that’s what happening when people are really afraid. And, if you have a gun to hand, then it is possible that that could lead to a quicker response that involves the gun. However, there’s a lot going on here. People have to see having that gun and using it as an option for action and many people just automatically won’t. So automatically, in that moment of fear, they won’t reach for the gun; many people won’t even have the gun with them in the first place. But, having the gun present does suggest that the person thinks that they might use the gun in some situations and so, therefore, if it is there then there’s a possibility it’s going to relate to the violent behaviour.

Chris - So would that stand up as a defence in court do you think - oh, my brain screened out all of my other thought processes and I thought I was in danger so I just shot the person?

Kyle - This is a big current issue in neural law actually. It’s something that’s of real interest and we haven’t been able to deal with it. And one of the reasons is because neurologists, criminologists and lawyers just aren’t speaking the same language so that’s just an issue that we need to address and, obviously it’s an important one. I think, at the moment, our understanding is that there is an element of control and ability that is there. You can have people in the same situations that wouldn’t make the same choice so, until we can say that you would absolutely have no choice, then I think the law will stay as it is. But it’s certainly a discussion that is being had and needs to be had.

Chris - Kyle; thank you very much.

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