My Brain Made Me Do It

Several years ago I served on a jury for a murder trial. We were responsible for deciding whether or not the evidence against the defendant was sufficient “beyond a reasonable doubt” to justify a guilty verdict, as well as what his sentence would be. As we debated the issues, emotions ran high. Not surprisingly, many jury members identified with the victim’s family. More than once someone asked, “What if it was your husband who was killed?” Less frequently, a jury member identified with the defendant’s family and asked, “What if it was my son who was responsible for this death?” Issues of justice and mercy were more complicated than they seem to be on TV dramas! Our various perspectives were fueled by fear, anger, and sadness.

Not many of us will participate in a murder trial. (Thank goodness!) However, most of us will participate in a conversation about some equally complex and frightening issue. We will “overhear” conversations about these issues through the news media, Twitter, Facebook, or blog posts. In recent years, those conversations have included Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, and a San Bernardino social service agency in California. The topics range from ISIS, immigration, and human sexuality, to the economy and the nomination of the next Supreme Court justice. And throughout the conversations, we will hear the voices of fear, anger, and sadness. For good reason! These primal emotions are hardwired into our brains, so that we can detect danger in our environment and respond appropriately to ensure our safety.

Our society has tended to separate emotions from thoughts, often valuing “rational” thought over “irrational” emotions. We do this at our peril. Our emotional responses to information and experience significantly shape how we interact with other people, what we pay attention to, how we make decisions, and how well we learn. These responses are biological and chemical, as well as psychological and behavioral. They are based in our brains.

Deep within each human brain lies the limbic system—one of the oldest parts of the brain and the location where we receive information from our environment and determine whether this information will be of benefit or harm. When we judge that something is enjoyable or pleasant, our brain releases neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) such as dopamine and endorphins. We feel anticipation, enthusiasm, and energy; our curiosity is stimulated, and we are motivated to pursue whatever has triggered this response. On the other hand, when we interpret incoming information in a negative light, our brain releases adrenaline and other chemicals that trigger the proverbial “fight, flight, or freeze” syndrome. These primal survival mechanisms are a response to stress and inhibit our ability to use other parts of our brain effectively.

Our emotions elicit chemical changes, leading to alterations in our mood and behavior. We may experience changes in our breathing and heart rate; we may break out in a sweat, feel dizzy, or sick to our stomach. Our emotions can lead to high risk-taking or, conversely, to risk aversion. We choose to engage or withdraw. We attach significance to information or dismiss it as irrelevant and unimportant. Emotions focus our attention, anchor our learning, and enhance memory.

Implications for Courageous Conversations

Issues that require courage to discuss are often emotionally charged. Facilitators of “courageous conversations” must create a climate of safety for conversation partners. Otherwise, our brains can flood our beings with a sense of threat that will shut down our ability to listen, analyze various perspectives, and be open to alternative viewpoints. Instead, we will go on the attack or withdraw from the fray. Facilitators must model a “non-anxious” presence that encourages calmness and demonstrates confidence in participants’ ability to engage difficult issues appropriately.

Participants in “courageous conversations” need to be emotionally intelligent, aware of what they are experiencing emotionally and how those emotions are affecting their bodily and behavioral reactions to what is happening around them. We can ask questions to clarify what another person is saying or thinking and to understand different perspectives, whether we agree with them or not.

Together, we can practice spiritual disciplines and discernment that lead to “holy indifference.” We move from an “either/or” mindset to identification of options and possibilities. As we center ourselves in God’s love and grace, we open ourselves to the Spirit’s movement among us. And in the process, we are transformed, taking small steps towards God’s dream for our world.

Carol F. Krau, Ph.D., recently retired from Discipleship Ministries, where she worked to provide resources and support for Christian faith formation. She was also a cheerleader for Scott Hughes and his “Courageous Conversations” initiative.

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