Sally, a single mother and pediatric nurse friend of mine, was stunned when her son Josh arrived home from school sobbing, ran to his room and slammed the door. Josh was a gentle happy soul who loved school and did well. This was a first and Sally was worried. She listened patiently at his door until the sobbing quieted then gently entered the room to comfort him. Slowly– haltingly – tearfully he described scenes of bullying at school, that he was too ashamed to tell anyone let alone his mother. The next day, over Josh’s protests, she met with the principal who agreed to talk to Josh’s tormentor and do what he could to make the bullying stop. A few weeks later her crying son stormed into the house again this time with disheveled hair and a story of being dunked in the boy’s room toilet by the same boy. Again she met with the principal with the same result. The pattern of events repeated several more times during the year, her frustration growing with each meeting with the principal. In spite of the reassurances nothing seemed to change.
As the school year drew to a close, Sally volunteered to chaperon a school field trip to a museum in a distant city. Before boarding the bus the teacher suggested the students take a last minute bathroom break. Josh and a group of others left for the bathrooms. As they returned, Sally noticed Josh was missing. She walked down the hall and as she reached the boy’s room door a wet haired crying Josh burst out closely followed by his laughing tormentor. Sally grabbed the tormentor and angrily threw him against the wall, where he hit with a loud thud. She immediately realized her mistake, but it was too late. The principal saw the incident and called the police. Sally was arrested and charged with simple assault, a misdemeanor that might cause her to lose her nursing license.
What happened to this warm and loving mom in that moment?
To begin with it is important to know that our brains are complex and have many regions working simultaneously (that is how we can walk, chew gum, digest lunch, and talk at the same time). One region that is always on line checking to be sure we are safe is the limbic region (a group of structures deep inside the brain that includes the amygdala, the brain’s alarm system). Research is now suggesting that the limbic region with its amygdala can spark behavior and emotions about one-half second faster than our cortex can decide on the best course of action. This is a dangerous time lag in our complex world. It is likely that the amygdala evolved when the world was less complex – a time when life was either eat or be eaten. Life is still simple for the amygdala, because it only answers one question: Fight or Flight? Then immediately puts things in motion. Meanwhile back on the ranch, the cortex is weighing the options by considering information from many sources to determine the best action (e.g., memories, social rules, possible consequences, etc.). All that deliberation takes time, which turns out to be about one-half second (Cozolino, 2015).
It in the half-second it took for the tormentor to fly through the air and hit the school wall, Sally’s cortex caught up with her amygdala and limbic region. In that half-second her cortex was able to consider the options, one of which was that throwing any child against the wall is a wrong. That was when she realized her mistake. “Back in the day,” that is many thousands of years ago when humans were often preyed upon by other fierce animals, it was imperative to immediately attack or flee and the amygdala no doubt saved many lives. In today’s complex world the same system that saved our lives back then can cause problems such as Sally’s. In other words, Sally realized her mistake too late, not because something was “wrong,” but because her brain was functioning exactly as it should. It could happen to any of us and one technique that is showing promise to prevent problems is practicing mindfulness, but more about that in a later blog.
Sally’s story has a happy ending. This perspective was presented in court and the judge lowered the charge to a violation, she paid a small fine and kept her nursing license. By the way Josh is doing well, is an excellent student, and will soon graduate from high school.