When we receive information, two pathways are activated in our brain: the “lower” path, where the emotional centers are located, or the “upper” path, where our reasoning is located. Between the two is the orbitofrontal cortex, which calibrates both zones for the making of decisions. When we see images that frighten, horrify, or fascinate us, the lower route is activated. And it is very, very fast, because of the neurons that populate it are up to four times larger in dimension than the average neuron. Their size and shape makes them communicate faster than any other kind – in as little as 500 milliseconds.
When we see images that frighten, horrify, or fascinate us, our emotional centers activate before our reasoning
Along with the lower route, we find the upper route of reasoning that differentiates us from other mammals. The problem is that it is slower and harder to activate when strong feelings are generated. When the groups we belong to have shared emotions, they are typically more intense and leave our reasoning brain idling. The reason for that is all about survival. If we see someone with a scared face running, we are likely to get out alive if we too are scared and running. Logically, this mechanism of contagion is not always practical, as is the case in adolescence, when people imitate behaviors that are not advisable, or in situations of panic or collective anger, when we can let ourselves become carried away without necessarily having a lot of common sense.
However, although our instincts and emotions are so fast and powerful, we can also use a little common sense. When we do not get carried away by the first thing that pops into our heads, we activate the prefrontal areas of our brain and start training restraint. It can be strengthened by using tricks that help us to stop, reflect, and achieve some distance. On the one hand, we need to reduce the impact of the lower path by observing emotions without falling into them. On the other hand, we need to activate the upper way by accessing other points of view and avoid incendiary comments that feed unhealthy emotions to establish realistic action plans.
Restraint is the conquest of our instincts and our basic emotions
In short, restraint is the conquest of our instincts and our basic emotions. Fear tends to enlarge and distort reality, especially in a collective sense. Restraint, however, neutralizes its impact, but to do this we need to know our faults, our resources, and ourselves. If we awaken the higher path, we can contemplate our problems for long enough to identify more options and live in a more serene life. Let's take advantage of troubled and hectic times to train our brains with restraint.
English version by Debora Almeida.