On February 22, Sue Bethanis hosted Janet Crawford, Janet Crawford, CEO of Cascadance, Inc. and co-author of Leadership Embodiment. As a scientist and pioneer in the application of social neuroscience to corporate culture, Janet has two decades of experience working Fortune 500 companies with her client organizations spanning the who’s who of Silicon Valley. A scientist and pioneer in the application of social neuroscience to corporate culture, Janet helps companies uncover and address the hidden biological roots of inequity.

Favorite Quote: 

“You really cannot think your way out of lack of sleep. Lack of sleep changes the brain and changes the way the brain is equipped to respond. Lack of sleep activates the amygdala to a very significant degree. So we know that you can’t think your way out of amygdala activation, but you can sleep your way out of it.”


What is going on in our brain when we experience fear?

Your brain is always assessing how safe am I versus how threatened am I. Janet says “one of the basic principles about the brain is that very little of what we do is the result of any kind of conscious decision. They are automatic responses because we have a pre-installed instinct that’s been fine-tuned and honed over millions of years of evolution. “

The prefrontal area in the brain is where most of our more sophisticated nuanced intellectual thinking takes place. We have these very basic automatic instinctual parts of the brain, and the brain tries to figure out how much threat there is in the environment. Am I being overstimulated? Is there a clear and present danger to me? The brain then calculates if it is much better off behaving in an instinctual unconscious way than trying to think through the situation. Conscious thought is incredibly slow, and we can’t go through this very cumbersome process of responding to the world when we’re in a clear and present danger.

On fear of difference:

We often think of this in terms of race and really obvious differences. But according to Janet, “we can fear somebody who has a different worldview from ours, who has a different religion from ours, who has a different set of beliefs from ours, even a different way of interacting with the world. Introverts and extroverts can sometimes be grouped. So any form of difference, but it’s a difference that we don’t understand and feel comfortable with, and that’s a really important differentiator.”

How we respond to fear:

 We typically feel a sense of nervousness, inability to focus well, inability to sleep well, irritability, a kind of rapid response of the classic fight-flight and freeze. But we don’t typically run away from things, or engage in fist fights, or totally clam up and freeze. But it can look like things like just shutting down around certain kinds of conversations, or saying snarky things to people or posting things on social media in a very erratic way. So we tend not to be good filters when we’re living in fear and we also lose the ability to be discerning and focused.

  • Freezing Up: This idea that somebody says something to you and you react so strongly, or you’re so strongly caught off guard that you don’t defend your boundaries, or you don’t say something or maybe what you say is unintelligible, or in one way or another you just lose your ability to respond in a way that represents you well or to respond at all. So a lot of people just shut down and they don’t say anything. And then later we’ll be quite angry at themselves. I didn’t say anything to this person when clearly it deserved a response. So that’s the shutting down fear response. And we can shut down around generalized anxiety to just kind of clam.
  • Fight Response: Another acute response would be saying something really inappropriate, or getting into a kind of a fight mode with somebody where we might use language that we wouldn’t normally feel proud of ourselves for using, or become combative with somebody or start to overtly compete with them in a way that doesn’t really represent our long-term interests.
  • Avoidance: We can also do things like avoid people just avoid answering their calls, avoid responding to them altogether which is, in essence, a little bit of a flight response, or we can just leave a meeting or cut something short because we feel overwhelmed.

On the Amygdala Hijack:

The amygdala are two almond-shaped structures in the brain. And what they do really is they measure the level of stimulation in the environment. According to Janet, “If the amygdalae sense that there is enough threat in the environment it triggers what’s called an “amygdala hijack”. Which is that the brain pretty much cuts off resources to the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that does this nuanced thinking, can respond in a measured thoughtful sort of way, and reroute to your behavioral choices to the lower part of the brain which is more linked to these kinds of automatic and really brusque or abrupt kinds of responses to this fight-flight-freeze type behavior.”

When you get threatened you start to become less thoughtful, less resourceful. And if that threat is sudden or you just get too much built up the threat of stimulus in the environment the brain is going to just cut off your access to those higher thinking capabilities and send you into these lower responses. And when that happens in a kind of acute situation it’s called an amygdala hijack and you’re in that moment of hijack. You can’t do that much about it right in that moment because the part of the brain that you need in order to do something about it has had its resources cut off.

How to stay in control of our bodies and our minds:

Janet says, “Our brain evolutionarily is still operating primarily on a level of the African savannah instinctually not on the level of New York City. So there’s a lot that happens in our lives on a daily basis that our brains are not well equipped to handle.”

The basics are things like getting enough sleep (seven to nine hours a night), good nutrition, adequate hydration, time in sunlight, social time with friends and family, meditation, and exercise. All of those things that we just intuitively know make us feel better also are critically important to our brain functioning well.

Any time that we tell ourselves to turn off the distractions, turn off the screens, turn off the background noise, then go sit and be still and focus on one thing whether it’s our breath, or a mantra, or a prayer, that has a huge benefit to the brain in terms of creating a background sense of calmness. Think about where you can turn off the stimulus.

What we found most interesting:

A lot of people have this intuitive sense that it’s really good to connect with people who are in the opposing camp, but then they go into that conversation really unclear on what they hope to accomplish. In the back of their mind what they hope to accomplish is vindication or the other person to acknowledge that they’re right – those things are not likely to happen. What is likely to happen is that the other person is going to say something that you vehemently disagree with, and you’re going to go into an amygdala hijack.

Janet believes, “There is no shame in saying I’m not ready to have this conversation because I think it’s more important to have the conversation in a productive way than it is to just have the conversation. Having a conversation in a negative way can actually do more damage overall to the cause than not having it at all.”

What do you hope to accomplish with the conversation?  Prioritize things like:

  • I hope to accomplish a sense of connection with this other person.
  • I hope to find a place where we have commonality.
  • I hope that they walk away with a sense of me as a human being that they respect.

According to Janet we should, “Take a moment out before you have that conversation to ground and center yourself and think about the larger perspective on life and why this matters to you. While you can’t really pull yourself out of the amygdala hijack when you’re in the middle of one you can prevent one as you’re going into it.”

To learn more about Janet Crawford’s work, listen to the WiseTalk recording.