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Why Your First Impulse Can Lead You Astray

One of the best known and most quoted lines of American poetry is from Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

These words are typically used to encourage living large, getting out of our comfort zones by challenging convenience and going for adventure, even when (or especially when) it doesn’t seem entirely rational. Many of us can reflect back on a time when we changed directions, based on a hunch, an intuition, or a sense of inner conviction, that gave us the courage to take a chance on life.

Frost himself, however, said that this poem was “tricky” and often misinterpreted. While many readers take it to refer to the importance of not following the crowd, Frost said that it referred instead to the tendency to regret past decisions.

There are definitely times in life when we face an urgent crossroads and how we respond can lead to profound growth or deep regret. In his fascinating book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., details what’s going on inside our brains when we’re confronted with circumstances that demand quick action. He describes the amygdala, known as the old or reptilian brain, as a smoke detector. It reacts to threat with quick, decisive action: fight, flight, or freeze.

He calls the frontal lobes, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex—located directly above our eyes—the watchtower. This part of our brain gives us an overview and balances the knee jerk reaction function of the amygdala with a more contemplative approach.

For instance, if there’s smoke in the air, the amygdala “goes off,” just like a smoke detector does, and sounds the alarm. “The house is on fire… get out now!” But the prefrontal cortex might wonder, “Hmm, is that the smell of the steak I’m cooking at too high a temperature?”

Van Der Kolk refers to the amygdala reaction as taking the low road, while the prefrontal response is taking the high road. Obviously, both are needed at times. The house may actually be on fire! Or, it might just be that steak.

He connects these two options with how we deal with stress. “Effectively dealing with stress depends upon achieving a balance between the smoke detector and the watchtower. If you want to manage your emotions better, your brain gives you two options: You can learn to regulate them from the top down or from the bottom up.”

We’ve infused brain research into our book Thriving in Business and Life and into our soon-to-be released online course The 12 Essential Practices of Thriving in Business and Life. Complex as this may seem, we’ve distilled what we’ve learned down to several simple principles and practices. All of them become valuable when we apply these insights about brain function into our daily activities, particularly how we think, speak, and act, and make new choices…. when we take the road less travelled and develop new habits.

Many of us know the joke about someone asking a passerby how to get to Carnegie Hall. “Practice, practice, practice!”

How do we interrupt the “amygdala hijack,” as we refer to it, when there’s no real emergency, when a calmer approach is required? We practice the habit of engaging the prefrontal cortex. That’s difficult to do in the midst of a crisis, so we’re wise to practice in less challenging moments.

For instance, meditation is an excellent way to increase our experience of mindfulness, which is the term Van Der Kolk uses to describe the ability to “hover calmly and objectively over our thoughts, feelings, and emotions… and then take our time to respond… This capacity is crucial for preserving our relationships with our fellow human beings. As long as our frontal lobes are working properly, we’re unlikely to lose our temper every time a waiter is late with our order or an insurance company agent puts us on hold.”

If meditation seems like a stretch, the simple act of breathing consciously and slowly triggers what's known as a "relaxation response" in our brains, allowing us to move from our survival brain to more whole-brained thinking. With our whole brains engaged, we are better able to assess the situation more accurately while also tuning into our own and others' emotional states with greater accuracy.

This explains the background brain function relating to empathy. Sadly, we’re witnessing a stark absence of this feeling capacity in terrorist activities and mass shootings. Obviously, the shooter doesn’t really consider his targets to be human, like himself. For whatever reason, he’s in survival mode, protecting himself by attacking “others.”

Here in Oregon, a local youth recently died when he confronted a man harassing a woman on a train. In the aftermath, an instructive revelation came to light: when encountering a person who is raging at someone, if you intend to intervene, connect with the victim, don’t confront the attacker.

“Hey, Sally, are you coming to dinner tonight. The whole family is really looking forward to seeing how much your daughter Ellie has grown since last year. Can you bring lasagna?”

Making up that kind of friendly banter in the face of hatred could save a life. Why might this help? Your words could wake up the attacker to the fact that this is a human being he has objectified. If he can suddenly realize that she is a real person, just like him, that might help.

We certainly don’t understand enough about such crisis situations to be able to recommend intervening or not, but we all have our own less intense versions where a choice to walk the road less travelled, to be in the watch tower, could help humanize any circumstance where perspective has been lost in the rush of chemical reactions initiated by that smoke detector.

With practice, practice, practice, we can develop super skills for mediating conflict and for living our own lives in thriving mode, beyond the stress cycles of stress reactions.

Here’s your thriving challenge for the week:

The next time you encounter conflict and feel the urge to act fast – if it’s not really a serious emergency – take a moment to pause and engage your frontal lobes. Feel what it’s like to disrupt a knee-jerk reaction to fight, flight, or freeze, and increase your momentary mindfulness with a perspective vision, available from your “watch tower.” Take the road less travelled.

Christopher Harding and Will Wilkinson

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