The Security Professional’s Guide to the Brain
At just three pounds, the brain is responsible for determining if we breathe, how we move, our manner of communication, what we think, how we feel, if we learn, what we remember, and what we hold meaningful.
Three pounds is responsible for who we are.
In the past several decades, the depth and breadth of brain research has exploded. Some of the most significant findings reveal the extent to which we can consciously influence the way our brains work and, consequently, how we show up in the world.
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For security professionals, this has exciting implications for improving foundational skill sets, including complex decision-making, situational awareness, and de-escalation.
A basic understanding of the brain’s structure and functions—and of proven ways to naturally and effectively change brain chemistry—can elevate performance. Doing so also ensures that we are responding to circumstances with intention, rather than reacting solely on (neurochemical) impulse.
To understand how we can change our brains to support optimal performance, it is helpful to know a few basic concepts.
Brain Basic #1: The brain is a key part of the central nervous system. This includes the somatic and autonomic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is most relevant to performance in security. The ANS consists of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with our aroused “fight or flight” responses to threats. The parasympathetic nervous system is inhibitory; it calms the body so it can resume normal functioning and recover from stress.
When faced with threat or conflict, the sympathetic nervous system—specifically, the amygdala—is what is sent into fight or flight mode. This occurs in 50 milliseconds, or roughly half the time of an eye blink. The sympathetic nervous system is highly developed, and it is estimated to be approximately 300 to 150 million years old.
In contrast, it takes approximately 10 times as long for the “younger” frontal lobe—which developed in humans and primates only 3 million years ago—to kick in.
In the .55 seconds before our frontal lobe reacts to a perceived threat, our sympathetic nervous system has already responded, and we will have a primitive emotional reaction of fear or anger. The body responds to these emotional cues by diverting resources away from parts that are less critical and concentrating them on those needed for survival, such as the larger muscles, heart, and lungs. Physiologically, this can result in increased heart rate, muscle tension, decreased saliva, and dilated pupils. A further cascade of additional physiological and cognitive changes can potentially compromise decision-making and situational awareness.
Vision can be impacted, resulting in “tunnel vision” or a narrowing of the visual field. Hearing can be affected, and we can experience muted, amplified, or missing sounds. Fine motor skills and coordination can be compromised. The ability to communicate can be impacted, resulting in issuance of unclear or even contradictory messages, such as, “Don’t move. Place the item on the floor,” or “Be quiet. Tell me your name.”
Additionally, because the brain’s more primitive way of responding to threats has been activated and its goal is to maintain safety, we are more susceptible to view situations from a biased perspective as we seek familiar patterns which might not accurately reflect the current circumstances.
Brain Basic #2: Autonomic does not mean automatic. The word “autonomic” was coined in the 1900s and reflects the brain research available at that time—it connotes an involuntary or unconscious response. Modern science demonstrates, however, that we can functionally change our autonomic states through breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, modulating our voices, altering our diet, and changing our thoughts. We do not need to automatically react to situations. Instead, we have the ability to intentionally respond.
Brain Basic #3: What fires together wires together. Known as Hebb’s Rule (so named after the pioneering neuropsychologist who proposed the groundbreaking theory), this concept summarizes the basic way humans learn and form memories: The repeated firing of proximate neurons in the brain causes the relationships between these neurons to strengthen. Eventually, the activation of one neuron will trigger the activation of another. These relationships allow us to learn complex tasks, such as playing a musical instrument or using a firearm.
We do not need to automatically react to situations. Instead, we have the ability to intentionally respond.
Hebb’s Rule led to additional discoveries in neuroscience, including the concept of neuroplasticity, which shows that we can create new neural relationships throughout our lives. This is particularly important because some of our neural pairings may not have formed intentionally and may not serve us well. If early in life someone learned to smother feelings of fear or anxiety with anger, this now familiar response could be so conditioned that the person may not be aware of his or her initial experience of fear in a circumstance, and he or she risks missing valuable contextual information.
So, how can security professionals apply these basics to day-to-day tasks and challenges?
Complex Decision-Making and Situational Awareness
The ability to engage in complex decision-making and to maintain accurate situational awareness are foundational to effective security management.
Complex decision-making involves the deliberate evaluation of options and the selection of a course of action that is most likely to achieve a desired outcome. It requires an understanding of a situation and the ability to rationally choose from reasonable alternatives.
For security professionals, complex decision-making and the need for situational awareness are most often associated with potentially threatening or conflict-laden situations, moments when the brain will immediately respond in a manner that can undermine the ability to effectively respond.
This compromised response state results from Brain Basic #1—the role of the central nervous system.
Mitigating the impact of the sympathetic nervous system’s acute stress response—the primitive flight-or-fight emotional reaction that will physiologically occur faster than we can rationalize it away—involves Brain Basics #2 and #3.
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A key first step is to identify that the autonomic nervous system has been triggered. Noting changes in breathing or heart rate and attaching language to the associated emotional experience—“I am feeling threatened” or “I am feeling agitated”—allows time for the cortex to catch up with the experience. Note the use of the phrase “I am feeling…” rather than “I am…” This will help prevent over-identification with the amygdala’s primitive emotional response, and it can short-circuit the fight or flight signal.
A second step is to regulate the physiological response, which typically involves taking deep, rhythmic breaths. While doing so, continue to engage the cortex by assessing the situation with questions like “What is the immediate threat?,” “Do I need to engage now?,” or “Is there something I’m missing?” Rapidly cycling through basic problem-focused questions supports rational decision-making that is less vulnerable to a reactive or biased response.
The brain’s neuroplasticity (referenced under Brain Basic #3) can help with longer-term management of the acute stress reactions triggered by the amygdala. By leveraging a few key tactics, we can literally rewire ourselves in advance of dealing with threats and conflicts to support more effective decision-making and improved situational awareness.
Physical rehearsal. Tabletops, functional, and full-scale exercises typically focus on the logistics and operations of responding to common threats. Incorporating scenarios that require rehearsing stress responses to a threat or conflict—responding to an armed or suicidal customer or patient, for example—and including a rehearsal of steps such as noticing changes in breathing or heart rate, naming feelings, taking deep rhythmic breaths, and rapidly cycling through problem-focused questions can train the brain to manage its responses when needed.
Mental rehearsal. Elite athletes, performers, and motivational speakers are among many professionals who prove that the brain doesn’t differentiate between reality and fantasy when it comes to improving performance. Engaging in mental rehearsals in which myriad threats are met with calm awareness and intervention can likewise improve performance when needs arise in real life.
Obtaining accurate, objective data on potential behavioral indicators is both critical and challenging.
Mindfulness meditation. Research demonstrates that mindfulness meditation, during which the focus is being intensely aware of what you are experiencing and feeling in the moment without evaluation or judgment, significantly improves the ability to regulate responses to emotional reactions.
Several studies show that those who engage in as little as 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation for five days demonstrate improved self-regulation. They also exhibit lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, plus a significant decrease in stress-related cortisol.
We not only have the ability to influence our own autonomic nervous system response when we perceive a threat, we can also influence the reaction of others who feel threatened.
Research on emotional contagion finds that humans synergize to each other’s emotional states. Marketers, professional sports leagues, and comedy shows that record before live audiences leverage this principle to influence behavior; the positive mood that spreads through groups increases individuals’ propensity to make purchases and enhances performance.
Recent studies show that the physiological and neurological matching occurs even in the absence of physical presence. For instance, emotional posts on social media platforms have been shown to be contagious. In a large-scale research study conducted by Facebook and several U.S. universities, positive and negative Facebook posts were manipulated. Researchers found that when positive posts were removed from accounts, leaving users with more negative content, they subsequently posted more negative content. When negative posts were removed from accounts, more positive posts followed. The Facebook study offers insight as to why a single, prolific disgruntled employee can be so damaging for a workforce’s morale—and how consistent supportive messages can foster resilience.
When we encounter someone who is extremely agitated or tense, our primitive response will be to match their state of emotional arousal. Conversely, by understanding this autonomic reaction and replacing it with a regulated affective reaction—such as calmness or compassion—we can create a counter-contagion that will influence and reinforce whatever words and behaviors we use to defuse the situation.
Creating Cultures of Safety
Moving beyond the individual, security professionals can use basic knowledge of brain science to elevate the safety literacy of the workforce. Modern workforce safety training generally includes education on the behavioral indicators that can be associated with potential threats of violence: expressions of grievances; dramatic mood, behavioral, or life circumstance changes; signs of substance abuse; preoccupation with weapons or violence; excessive attention-seeking or isolation; and expressions of anger or hopelessness.
Having a knowledgeable workforce is foundational in capturing intelligence on a potential violent actor—provided the workforce is willing to clearly and accurately report behaviors that they witness.
Underreporting. We’re all hardwired for survival, and educating people about behavioral risk factors and risk reporting mechanisms can leverage that instinct, resulting in increases in reporting of threatening behaviors.
One drawback, however, is that this approach can have unintended consequences given its reliance on the reactive sympathetic nervous system (Brain Basic #1). A highly reactive workforce tends to overreact, rendering it more problematic than helpful.
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Although we are programmed for survival, humans also appear to be hardwired for altruism. Research shows that infants as young as 6 months demonstrate preferences for those who help others, while avoiding those who don’t.
Working with the C-suite, human resources, legal counsel, and others to create a workplace violence prevention plan that prioritizes intervention instead of discipline—and frames reporting as an altruistic act—is a more productive way to capitalize on human nature.
Inaccurate reporting. Potential violent actors often exhibit multiple behavioral warning signs in the months and even years prior to their attacks. According to The Violence Project, 43.15 percent of mass shooters through 2019 (including those involved in workplace violence, school violence, and public space violence) exhibited one to four behavioral indicators; 37.7 percent exhibited more than five.
Obtaining accurate, objective data on potential behavioral indicators is both critical and challenging. One of the primary reasons for the latter again relates to our primitive survival instinct and what is known as the ambiguity bias.
When faced with ambiguous circumstances, the human mind is biased to draw conclusions that skew toward the negative. This helps the human species survive when, say, we hear a rumbling in a nearby bush and immediately presume that it is a tiger about to eat us rather than a kitten that wants to cuddle. It is less helpful when a member of the workforce witnesses one of the behavioral indicators and makes a biased conclusion. For example, someone sees a colleague sharing photos of their past several weekends at the gun range and reports both the photos and their unfounded theories about the coworker’s malicious intent as facts.
As with any bias, educating the workforce about ambiguity bias is one way to mitigate its impact. Compassionately verifying the account of a well-intended reporter is clearly also imperative.
Intentionally using—and changing—our brains enhances the ways security professionals can keep those we serve secure. Doing so repeatedly leverages the brain’s neuroplasticity and builds new neurocircuitry that wires us to respond rather than react to the situations we face.
Three pounds can make us more effective security professionals and more effective humans.
Diana M. Concannon is the dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University, where she also serves as associate provost for Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships. She is a forensic psychologist and maintains a threat assessment and management consultancy. She is author of Kidnapping: An Investigator’s Guide and Neurocriminology: Forensic and Legal Applications, Public Policy Implications. Concannon is the co-vice chair of the ASIS International Extremism and Political Instability Community.