Acting Prior to Thinking
October 10, 2010 8:04 AM   Subscribe

Several years ago a psychology experiment found that in emergency situations, the body seems to engage in fight/flight before the cortex determines that, say, a lion is running at us. Can anyone help me find that study? And, for extra points, any subsequent studies showing action coming before thought in other sorts of scenarios?
posted by Quisp Lover to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can't really help you with specific studies, but it sounds like what you're referring to is William James' theory of emotion. You could start your search there.
posted by gkhan at 8:16 AM on October 10, 2010

This, from 7:50? Comedy, sure, but it is demonstrating the principle.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:23 AM on October 10, 2010

This isn't directly helpful, but that phenomenon was discussed a while back on RadioLab... in the Where Am I? episode. They interview Robert Sapolsky and Antonio Damasio in that episode; I don't know if either of them was in any way responsible for the study, but it seems like a good place to start.

Also that's a great episode, of a great show.
posted by captainawesome at 8:25 AM on October 10, 2010

Response by poster: I love RadioLab too, will check it out, thanks (maybe they do shout out the scientist behind the study, who knows).

gkhan, not theory or philosophy, this phenomenon was actually proven by psychologists. I found it fascinating at the time, but can't find the darned thing....
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:28 AM on October 10, 2010

Look up papers by Benjamin Libet who, it seems, did a lot of work on the relative timing of action and conscious awareness.
posted by logicpunk at 8:35 AM on October 10, 2010

I recall reading about this in New Scientist. In a study of brain activity, a certain part of the brain lit up before the subject decided to do something. Moving their arm I think. It was billed as a free will test and possibly the cover story. 12-24 months ago. I'm afraid I can't be more specific than that, but hope it helps.
posted by londonmark at 8:47 AM on October 10, 2010

This made me think of how reflexes work. Motor neurons can initiate motion in response to a stimulus before the stimulus signal reaches the brain, so you kick when the doctor taps your knee even before you realize you've felt it, you blink before you consciously realize something's gotten in your eye, etc. This is for physical stimuli. I don't think a similar thing exists for visual or auditory stimuli, but definitely there can be a "lower brain" automatic response to quick movement, loud noise, bright lights, etc.

PS. Nothing's ever proven by a scientist.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:50 AM on October 10, 2010

Best answer: There's a bunch of recent brain imaging work showing that phobia triggers can lead to activation in the amygdala, I believe before the visual processing of the scene/object is complete or even very far along. This is also building on a lot of behavioral research that I don't know, which is probably what you are actually thinking of. A google search for amygdala spiders turns up a bunch of it. (But I believe there is controversy over these findings, as always.)
posted by advil at 9:36 AM on October 10, 2010

I saw some references to the idea being pushed by (among others) Robert B. Zajonc. The studies you're looking for may have cited him.
posted by cashman at 9:36 AM on October 10, 2010

Was it this post in the New York Times?
posted by Wordwoman at 9:58 AM on October 10, 2010

londonmark may be referring to Free Will and Free Won't (PDF). This was also discussed by Michael Brooks in his book 13 Things That Don't Make Sense in the chapter titeld Free Will. IIRC, a few of the names he mentions are Benjamin Libit (mentioned above) and Itzhak Fried and his discoveries of patients with epilepsy.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:02 AM on October 10, 2010

What you're looking for is a free-will-based problem, not a fight-or-flight or really any reflex at all problem. It's that your unconscious-processing-type areas of the brain have already made the decision to flee before you are consciously capable of making a decision, and then your conscious "in-control" areas of the brain rationalize the decision the rest of you made after the fact. (very pop science, very inaccurate, but it's the best distillation I can manage)

I suggest you target your search at research in the areas of free will
posted by tehloki at 10:23 AM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

No specific study references except to second James and Libet.

But, in an only just on topic vein, with maybe some terminology that'll help you google, here's some anecdata.

I have a lot of experience of this and a lot of experience of it being professionally treated. I have PTSD. It's work related, long standing, and has been subject to on/off therapy for about a decade now.

There have been two major themes in that therapy. The first either follows, or is drawn from, CBT models. Conscious brain perceives stimuli, cognitive processes go to work on it and produce some "unhelpful thinking styles", emotional response follows, and then I'm ducking for cover. It's a neat theory, but not one that has never really washed with me. It just doesn't seem to describe what actually happens.

Rather, what seems to happen is that a car backfires, or I catch a flash of light out of the corner of my eye, or someone lets off a firecracker, and before I have any conscious realization of what's going on, I'm flat on the ground or under a table.

Several of my treating shrinks have put it to me that what's happening there is that my autonomic nervous system is recognizing external triggers that have been dangerous in the past, and plugging instructions straight through to my sympathetic nervous system. Heart rate, respiration, pupil dilation and eye movement kick off immediately. Then my sympathetic nervous system fires off the neurotransmitters and hormones necessary for muscle activation as part of a fight/flee/freeze routine. Shortly after that I'm diving for cover. Only then do I get to start thinking about why I'm hiding behind a broken cafe table..

(apologies if I've got some of that slightly wrong from a science point of view, it really isn't my field)

Treatment from the docs pushing this second idea tends to focus on desensitization, ways to remain grounded and calm in the face of all but the most dramatic triggers, and techniques for moderating the severity of the behavioral responses. I also tend to get a fair bit of practical advice on ways to apologize to unsuspecting bystanders.

So. Not the study you need. But perhaps a statement of two ends of the debate that might get you looking in the right place. Good luck!
posted by Ahab at 11:19 AM on October 10, 2010

Best answer: Are you referring to some of the effects of the amygdala? That particular structure is connected to the fact that you will snatch your hand away from a hot surface before you've registered the feeling of pain, which seems related to what you're asking.
posted by kavasa at 11:54 AM on October 10, 2010

Response by poster: Ahab, if you're still here, yeah, as I was reading, I was agreeing that there's no "thought" involved in this at all. And desensitization does seem the route to take (Jimi Hendryx and rollercoasters).

I understand this from a phobia standpoint. A phobia, as opposed to a fear, isn't something that creeps up on you, fed by thought. It's a gut reaction that's utterly unrelated to mental activity. In fact, it happens so ahead of thought that your thought process has to try to catch up to what your physiology is doing. "Only then do I get to start thinking about why I'm hiding behind a broken cafe table" is a good description! I have a fear of the dark, but that has shades of grey, and can be somewhat coped with and worked around. My phobia is binary, and there's no coping or working because those mental processes come AFTER the instantaneous phobic reaction....i.e. too late.

And while you never quite came back to my point, I do see where you're leading. There are times when stuff happens and you don't do it. If you've ever heard of "automatic yoga", after lots of meditation sometimes you, in a hazy, ultra-relaxed state of bemused detachment, might witness yourself doing all sorts of terribly advanced yoga postures....stuff you normally couldn't do. All totally relaxed, and without trying. It's a similar sort of situation.
posted by Quisp Lover at 5:05 PM on October 12, 2010

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