"Can't think straight?" Maybe your activation is too high.
By: Dr. Suzanne LaCombe, July 7, 2013.
Ever have those days when your mind feels like "mush"? Or maybe it's at the end of a long day and you think you might have lost a few brain cells cause you can't think anymore? Well, that's the kind of place I've been to.
That's what high activation does.
Activation refers to the level of energetic arousal in the body, a point on a scale running from "barely perceptible" to "extreme". We're all familiar with high activation but we ordinarily describe it as being "wired", "hyper" or "buzzing".
The physical sensations of activation originate in the muscles, viscera (i.e. glands and organs) and nervous system. If we're "buzzing" due to work stress for example, it shows up in the body. We could have a knot in our stomach, tingling in our toes or tension in our shoulders.
And, when we can't take it anymore and we crash from this state of hyperarousal we might develop what coud be called "numb" brain.
Activation shows up in many ways.
Because the source of activation lies in the primitive reptilian parts of the brain--the parts beyond our conscious control - the higher our activation, the less control we have in directing our thoughts, emotions or our behaviour.
In other words, higher activation coming from the primitive areas of the brain will interfere with and diminish our capacity to adapt to circumstances as they arise.
Embarrassing as it may seem, our ability to adapt, the secret of our survival which evolved over the centuries, can be thwarted by the most minor circumstances!
For an entertaining example, please take a few minutes to read the following vignette. (Only women of a certain era will fully appreciate this true story!1)
Paul Newman "Blue Eyes"
A Michigan woman and her family were vacationing in a small new England town where Paul Newman and his family often visited.
One morning the woman got up early to take a long walk. After a brisk five-mile hike, she decided to treat herself to a double-dip ice cream cone.
She hopped in the car, drove to the center of the village and went straight to the combination bakery/ice cream parlor.
There was only one other patron in the store. Paul Newman, sitting at the counter having a doughnut and coffee!
The woman's heart skipped a beat as her eyes made contact with those famous baby-blue eyes.
The actor nodded graciously and the star-struck woman smiled demurely.
"Pull yourself together!" -- she chided herself.
"You're a happily married woman with three children; you're forty-five, not a teenager! "
The clerk filled her order and she took the double-dip ice cream cone in one hand and her change in the other. Then she went out the door, avoiding even a glance in Paul Newman's direction.
When she reached her car, she realized that she had a handful of change, but her other hand was empty. Where's my ice cream cone? Did I leave it in the store?
Back into the shop she went, expecting to see the cone still in the clerk's hand or in a holder on the counter or something. No ice cream cone was in sight.
With that, she happened to look over at Paul Newman.
His face broke into his familiar grin as he said to the woman,
"You put it in your purse!"
I thought this might be a good illustration of how activation can affect you. After you take a moment to digest this story, try to remember those incidents in your life where you got so flustered you couldn't think straight.
Now, you know exactly how it feels to be "activated".
High activation and being flooded
High activation often puts us on autopilot. We're flooded, can't think straight, or "put two and two together". Sometimes the activation is so high we dissociate. When the activation is high enough, the primitive brain takes over. It hijacks our left "thinking" brain.
This is no problem if it's a true emergency. For example, imagine this scenario.
Out of the corner of your eye a ball is heading straight towards you. You duck your head sharply before you even know what's happening. The lower, primitive brain does the "thinking" for you.
That's an adaptive response. It takes over whenever the lower brain senses a threat. And as I mentioned above, the higher your activation the more this is the case. In other words, the higher our activation the more likely we will be under the influence of the primitive limbic and reptilian brain.
How does activation explain the "ice cream cone in the purse" incident?
The primitive brain uses learned patterned behaviours. "Ducking your head" is a patterned reaction. It's a behaviour that's learned over many trials (probably as a result of falling and hitting your head as an infant)2. These reptitive behaviours are called procedures.
We "move into procedure" whenever we ride a bike, drive a car or do anything that's routine for us. These patterned behaviours or procedures are a natural ability of the brain. The brain learns patterned responses thus freeing us up to work on more important matters.
But a state of high activation will trigger these automatic procedures or habitual behaviours because the activation is interpreted as a threat by the primitive brain, even if no real threat exists!
Unless, of course, you'd feel threatened by seeing Paul Newman eating a hamburger in a diner!
And, putting something in your purse is a frequent and customary action of many women. We can do it easily without thinking. It's a patterned response...a procedure. The higher our activation (getting flooded by meeting a favourite movie star) the more it is the case and the more we will "move into a procedure!"
1 I don't have the author of this story. It was sent to me anonymously. If anyone knows the author let me know.
2 Some survival procedures appear to be present from birth. For example, research has shown that infants are wary of getting too close to the edge where they might fall in.