Toward And Away Response – The Brain’s Two Functional States!
- Written by preethab30
An Emily Dickenson quote goes, “The brain is wider than the sky” and I couldn’t agree more!
Neuroscience has given us data to say that basically, the brain has two functional states, Toward and Away state. When you feel a toward emotion, you see more options, choices and opportunists and can receive or take in more information. When you are in an away state, your options, choices and opportunities shirks and you receive less information! Therefore, it is harder to create new wiring! For example, if you see red berries growing on a bush, your brain will either classify it as something that can harm you or something that will be rewarding. If your brain classifies the berries as harmful you may move away from the bush. On the other hand if the brain processes it to be rewarding you may pluck the berries and eat them!
The brain exists for our survival. It constantly scans the environment to identify and respond to threats and opportunities, seeking ways to minimize threats and maximize rewards. Understanding how the brain’s threat and reward networks leads us to move toward some things and away from others is the key to applying neuroscience to talent development.
Responses to opportunities and threats are emotional in nature, and emotional responses are centered in the limbic system. The job of the amygdala, part of the limbic system, is to assess stimuli (especially threats) and initiate an appropriate response. We typically think about stimuli coming from our external environment, but internal stimuli (a memory or a change in body chemistry, for instance) also can generate emotion. There’s a huge variety of emotional responses that can be triggered; we might flinch, wince, scream, run, jump, frown, smile, or lash out verbally. Many of these emotional responses are initiated instantaneously, perhaps a quarter of a second or more before signals reach the prefrontal cortex where they rise to the level of consciousness. When the prefrontal cortex is engaged, we have an opportunity to take executive action to moderate our response. Signals are also sent from the amygdala to the hippocampus where memories are encoded and associated with the emotion we’re feeling. Memories with a strong emotional content are more likely to be stored in long-term memory.
Like threats, rewards also start with a stimulus that might be from something external to the body (something like the aroma of baking bread) or internal to the body (something like a drop in blood sugar). The amygdala and limbic system react to the stimulus by creating a desire which is acted upon in the prefrontal cortex when a decision is made, to eat a slice of fresh-baked bread, for instance. When the reward is achieved, the limbic system and basal ganglia, particularly the nucleus accumbens, come into play by releasing neurotransmitters that raise dopamine levels and lead to feelings of satisfaction and pleasure. This reinforcement for our behavior increases the likelihood that we’ll repeat the behavior
Hence, the brain’s reward and threat network determine whether we will move towards something or away from it. If we encounter emotions like curiosity, happiness and contentment then the brain gives towards response. On the contrary emotions like anxiety, sadness and fear lead to an away response. So how do we minimize threat and maximize reward?
Minimizing Threat and Maximizing Reward
- Become familiar with the wide range of potential psychological and social threats that create avoidance behaviors in others. Learn to spot threats early. Become sensitive to them so that you’re less likely to unintentionally create threats that demotivate others.
- Practice self-reflection to understand yourself and the source of your emotions. Learn to recognize your emotional responses and what causes them so you can better manage them. This is the essence of emotional intelligence, an important enabler of leadership success. Lack of emotional intelligence is also a primary cause for derailment.
- Get to know, on a personal level, the people you lead and with whom you work so you better understand what they find rewarding and threatening. For instance, asking someone to make a public presentation may be seen as rewarding by one person but as threatening by another. Treat people as individuals. Equal treatment isn’t necessarily fair treatment.
- Learn how to lighten the mood when things become tense and stressful. Start by learning to relax. Your tension can be contagious. Likewise, your comfort. So don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Guard against sending messages that will create a social threat for others. Be inclusive and help others to feel they are part of the team.
Our survival depends on our ability to make predictions, and a primary goal of the brain is to predict where and how we can avoid threats and encounter rewards. Because the brain seeks to make accurate predictions, it has an aversion to uncertainty. The brain dislikes ambiguity.
The limbic system plays a huge role in being in a toward and away state, therefore knowing about the limbic system will help you regulate yourself.
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