Episode Transcript – Your Brain in Crisis-Mode

Stories and Strategies Podcast

Episode 17

Guest, Dr Steven Joordens, University of Toronto Scarborough Campus

Published August 23, 2020

Listen to this episode

Doug Downs (00:03):

As you know, we often play sound effects or music off the top of this podcast, a scene setter or a grabber. Today’s episode is about how the human brain responds to emergencies and crises. So the thought dawned on us that we could play a police or ambulance siren off the top, and then we had a more rational thought that because even though you would know it’s part of the show, your initial response before you really had a chance to think about it might be to panic and to look for that siren. Wherever you are right now, whatever you are doing, and then realizing that you’d been tricked, you’d rightfully be a little ticked off today on Stories and Strategies, how our brains respond in crisis mode.


My name is Doug Downs. My guest this week is Dr. Steven Joordens, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Hello, Dr. Joordens.

Steven Joordens (01:09):

Hey, Doug. Great to be with you today

Doug Downs (01:11):

Good to have you. I grew up in Scarborough, so where you work is definitely my neck of the woods. And you’re joining us today from New Brunswick, right on Canada’s East Coast.

Steven Joordens (01:21):

I am indeed. My mother and our family are here, so we’re here to eventually visit once we go through our little self-isolation period,

Doug Downs (01:29):

<laugh> Nice and Bay of Fundi. If for listeners, anyone who’s ever in New Brunswick. Yeah, Bay of Fundi is incredible.

Steven Joordens (01:36):

So beautiful. Yeah.

Doug Downs (01:37):

Dr. Joordens, you are a psychologist, a 3M National Teaching Fellow from 2015, a director of the Advanced Learning Technologies Lab at U of T, which is the short form from University of Toronto. And on the U of T website you list your specialties as consciousness, memory, and attention. And just so you and I are all good, those are definitely not my specialties, but I’ll do my best if that’s okay.

Steven Joordens (02:05):

Okay. Let me also mention that much more recently my work is more applied and really focuses on education as well. So I’ve taken some of these things about consciousness, memory, and attention, and found real world applications.

Doug Downs (02:18):

Fantastic. Good to be aware of that. Dr. Joordens, you are speaking at a virtual conference coming up in October of this year about the brain in times of stress or crisis, and we’ll have more about that conference in a few minutes. But first, I know how our brains are wired to respond in a crisis is going to ultimately connect back to when our ancestors were afraid of things jumping out at us in the Serengeti, wherever. And we hadn’t quite developed the great big brains that we now have. So can you explain the triune brain theory and which part of the brain responds the fastest?

Steven Joordens (02:55):

So I mean, I think this is a really important thing, especially in this age of covid for us all to understand because we like to think of ourselves so much as rational beings who do things for good thought out reasons. But in fact, at our core we are very primitive. And when things like threats emerge, it’s that primitive part of the brain that takes over. So specifically there are parts of the brain, the amygdala, the hippocampus that really are geared for helping us deal with threats and learn while we do. And the amygdala specifically is about as close as we can come to what we colloquially call a spider sense. If you spider-man fans who kind of know that when there’s danger around, he feels his spider sense tingle, well, we have this thing called the amygdala. All our sensory input goes through it. And if the amygdala senses a potential danger, it switches our body into a very primitive way of being.


Literally we will feel ourselves become energized, our heart rate will increase, our breathing will increase, and blood will flow to our muscles and it will make us sort of superhuman in a sense. We hear these stories of a mother lifting a car to save a trap child. That is when this system is engaged and it is meant to help us deal with an immediate crisis. It is not one that likes a lot of thought. It’s kind of like don’t think do, and what are you going to do while you’re either going to confront the situation dead on or you’re going to get away. And so we sometimes call this the fight or flee system for that reason, and it’s all kicked off by the amygdala.

Doug Downs (04:29):

Okay. And beside the amygdala, awfully close, you mentioned the hippocampus, which in layperson’s terms is I call it the facilitator of medium and long-term memory. In short, if the hippo doesn’t allow a memory to be filed, you don’t remember it. So how is our memory impacted in a crisis?

Steven Joordens (04:48):

Yeah, I mean it turns out this is a very complex question. And when you go to the research we can’t manufacture crises like it’s not ethical to do experiments where we suddenly put somebody in a life or death situation that they weren’t expecting and then see what happens. And so the data we have is imprecise but largely there’s a couple of interesting things. And one of the things I’ll note that we’ll give you a sense of the hippocampus is if you’re in a situation, and let’s say you were just walking in the woods and you smelled something you didn’t know what it was, you didn’t think much of it, and then a little while later this predator emerges your fighter flea system kicks in, and let’s say you escape the hippocampus as part of that process when the amygdala kicks in, the hippocampus is given the instruction to encode, which is what it does, encode information into memory, especially anything that was happening just before the predator stepped out.


And what the brain is essentially doing is trying to predict in the future so that the next time when you’re in those woods and you smell that smell, that can be enough to kick you into fight or flee mode even before you see the predator. And so it’s meant to prepare you so you can react quicker. But this is also the same system that produces post-traumatic stress disorder in that exact same way that we could be in a coffee shop and a shooter walks in, maybe just before the shooter walked in, coffees was being ground. And now when we hear coffee ground, we feel like we’re about to die. It’s that same sort of primitive system and it would evolve for one reason. And then it sometimes shows itself in different ways.

Doug Downs (06:23):

What’s amazing in listening to you is I’m realizing I’m not in charge of my own mind. So how does that inhibit my ability to respond in a crisis? Because I can’t plan for it, I can’t prepare for it,

Steven Joordens (06:35):

And the system almost doesn’t try. So part of that, the system kicking in is also a reduction of blood flow to the frontal lobes. So our frontal lobes are the most recent part where we do all of our strategic decision making and deep thinking and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, you’re exactly right. At a time of crisis, it’s kind of like your brain just loses that ability. And it’s not about thinking, it’s not about rationality, it’s about surviving. Literally. These are meant to be sort of short-term acute stresses where you either take on that predator and hopefully win or you get the heck away and it’s almost like that’s what your decision space gets restricted to attack or flee. And it is a very primitive reaction, and it’s one that’s gotten us where we are after centuries, but the world is so different now. Sometimes the system doesn’t quite fit.

Doug Downs (07:33):

I’ve heard my pupils actually dilate when I’m scared. Is that true? So I see things much bigger than they actually are.

Steven Joordens (07:40):

Yeah. And in fact, one way, because I know where we’re going to kind of go with this a little bit, so let me just sort of highlight this is what we’ve been talking about is sort of one side of a two-sided coin. There’s sort of two modes that we are in, and the opposite mode is associated with relaxation and digestion. And so when you’re kind of sitting on the couch, this is what we call the parasympathetic mode all your digestive pros, so you have more saliva in your mouth, your pancreas, your liver, all those things kick in and your breathing actually slows and your heart rate slows and your pupils constrict. And it’s so, it’s kind of like you’re just blending into that couch and getting away from the world. But yeah, suddenly we hear a crash outside and suddenly you think there’s danger. It’s like a light switch.


And part of that is indeed your brain wanting information from the outside world, cuz it’s now gotta deal with the outside world. So it dilates the pupils, it couldn’t dilate the ears. We don’t have that ability. But I think psychologically that’s also going on. All of our senses are being tuned, we’re getting a really strong input and we’re becoming physically stronger and ready to take on or get away from what’s going on. And so it’s kind of like we’re in one of these modes or the other at any given point in time. One, let me just make this point. The digestion one is about long-term survival. It’s kind of maintaining your body for the long term. The fight or flee is about short-term survival. You have a threat right now. Forget about the long term, stay alive for the next half hour. The big thing that I really like to recommend is something called guided relaxation or learning to formally relax. It’s that opposite side of the system so that when you’re anxious or when somebody else is anxious, what they tend to do when they want to not be anxious is focus on the anxiety. Don’t think that thought, don’t do whatever. And that just kind of makes the anxiety stronger

Doug Downs (09:41):

Metaphorically. The Disney Pixar movie inside Out I would think is one of the bastard explaining the brain in this scene. The opening scene of the movie Newborn Baby Riley is just getting to know her brain and the emotions, a k A, the characters within it.

Joy (Inside out) (10:08):

It was amazing. Just Riley and me forever. For 33 seconds. I’m sadness. Oh, hello. I I’m Joy. So I just, if you could, I just wanna fix that. Thanks. And that was just the beginning. Headquarters only got more crowded from there.

Fear (Inside Out) (10:39):

Very nice. Okay. Looks like you got this very good oh sharp turn.

Joy (Inside out) (10:44):

That’s fear. He’s really good at keeping Riley safe.

Fear (Inside Out) (10:48):

Easy, easy. Ah, hi back. Oh, we’re good. We’re good.

Riley (Inside Out) (10:48):


Fear (Inside Out) (10:53):

Thank you very much

Joy (Inside out) (10:54):

And we’re back.

Riley (Inside Out) (10:57):


Riley’s dad (Inside Out) (11:00):

Here we go. All right, open.

Joy (Inside out) (11:02):

This looks new.

Fear (Inside Out) (11:03):

Think it’s safe?

Joy (Inside out) (11:04):

What Is it? Ah,

Disgust (Inside Out) (11:05):

Okay. Caution. There is a dangerous smell people, hold on. What is that?

Joy (Inside out) (11:09):

This is Disgust. She basically keeps Riley from being poisoned physically and socially.

Disgust (Inside Out) (11:14):

That is not brightly colored or shaped like a dinosaur. Hold on guys, it’s

Joy (Inside out) (11:18):


Riley (Inside Out) (11:18):


Joy (Inside out) (11:21):


Disgust (Inside Out) (11:22):

I just saved our lives. Ooh. Yeah, you’re welcome

Joy (Inside out) (11:22):


Riley’s dad (Inside Out) (11:24):

Riley, if you don’t eat your dinner, you’re not going to get any dessert.

Anger (Inside Out) (11:27):

Wait, did he just say we couldn’t have dessert?

Joy (Inside out) (11:29):

That’s anger. He cares very deeply about things being fair.

Anger (Inside Out) (11:34):

So that’s how you wanna play it. Old man, no dessert. Oh sure. We’ll eat our dinner right after you eat this,

Riley’s dad (Inside Out) (11:44):



Here comes an airplane

Fear (Inside Out) (11:49):

We got an airplane everybody.

Steven Joordens (11:53):

So yeah, all very cool. So first of all, just to come back to the technique in general, our brains are not good at listing the same kind of input for a long period of time. They start to fatigue and we kind of drift. But if you can change things up at any point in time. And so if we kind of consider with that clip, we went from you and I sharing a bunch of words to suddenly different sounds and a different characterization of what we were already talking about, emotions being in control and how they’re the pilots and the rest of us more spectators almost. And so we can make that point and highlight it in a different way. In this case, a visually different auditorially, different way. And it just kind of gives our brain a refreshment. It’s almost like that food we eat between courses that just kind of refreshes our mouth and our taste buds.


And now we’re ready to go back to things. And so certainly as we talk about things like online learning, for example, this is a thing a lot of professors are learning. They used to just walk into a classroom and talk for an hour and they try to do that online and it doesn’t work very well. There are too many distractions. And so if you don’t take time to reengage people now and then their brain will drift to something they find more enjoyable. And so yeah, absolutely a very important technique to just change things up every now and then keep people fresh.

Doug Downs (13:11):

I love it. Right. You’re going right to analysis of what we’re doing with the communication of the podcast with these interludes. I love it is there is a fundamental difference between my brain in a crisis and my brain in stress. And what I mean is how does my brain respond differently between event related crisis? Oh my goodness. There’s a sabertooth and chronic day after day stress that our ancestors have this kind of day after day stress stuff that we at least feel like we’re living with.

Steven Joordens (13:47):

Yeah. So the answer biologically is there isn’t a whole lot of difference. It is true that once some danger, even covid for example, becomes a little more familiar, once we kind of learn ways of existing with it, it becomes a little less scary. So our response might not be as aggressive as it would be to a predator or a gun person standing in front of us right away. But in terms of what’s going on in the body, it’s very similar. It’s very much like we talked about. And it’s got a real negative aspect. And this is from the work of Han Selye many years ago where he showed that if you have chronic stress it’s really, it’s the acute stress system that’s dealing with that over time and it wasn’t meant to. And it leads to in fact, your immune system being negatively impacted.


So at the time of Covid, obviously the last thing we want are compromised immune systems. But this is why people who have been dealing with chronic stress often show more physical illness as well because their immune system just isn’t up to the challenge as it is for someone who isn’t dealing with this every day. And this is why Covid really has the potential to make us all feel chronic stress. I think it has been doing so, and that’s the biggest reason why I think we need to learn strategies for getting away from it now and then it’ll come back because the stressor is out there. But if we can give ourselves a break every now, and especially if we can give our ourselves a break doing things that are sort of anti stressors, everything in the brain comes down to hormones and chemicals it seems that are released in the body. And certainly stress causes a buildup of negative chemicals. But then there are things like, I don’t know, doing karaoke with your family an hour of karaoke with your family will lead probably to singing, laughing, some dancing, some silliness, and all of that floods your body with endorphins that sort of counter the stress response. And so learning to schedule some of this time into our day I think is very critical now to kind of undo the damage that this chronic stress response can do.

Doug Downs (15:55):

Fantastic. I know the event you’re speaking at in October is called the Virtually Crisis Conference is being presented by the Center for Crisis and Risk Communications and includes other presenters such as what a great list, Dr. Vincent Covello, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, who has been Alberta’s medical rockstar during Covid, Dr. Timothy Coombs from the United States and many other world renowned experts. What can people expect from you at that conference?

Steven Joordens (16:24):

Well, I hope what I can do is two things. One is just a clear understanding of why we’re all feeling like we do now that it’s a complete natural part of the biological system that composes us, but also more specifically, some concrete strategies and approaches that people can take literally to learn to manage because the real nasty kind of thing happens as a feedback loop between our body and our mind. And we can literally start thinking something negative that makes our body react the way it does. And that makes us more stressful. And we get this loop going. And if we can learn to cut that off, and there are way two ways to do that to either silence the body or to learn how to pull the mind somewhere else. And just like my karaoke example that I just gave you, this stuff can sound kind of geeky and scientific until you say, this is what I mean.


And then suddenly it seems like, oh, well that’s something I could do. That kind of makes sense. And yes, I do feel happier when I’m singing Beatles songs or something like that. And so that’s what I hope to give is some clear tips and suggestions that people can take from this and apply to their lives and literally help others too. If I can mention this just quickly to take off from where we were. Imagine you have an elderly person in your life who, who’s feeling very lonely and stressed and you’re worried about them, you know, definitely wanna keep in touch with them, that’s great. But if you could create a playlist of songs that were popular wherever they were when they were 15 years old, and you can somehow be able to play that playlist for them, you will see them time travel, you will see them go back to their youth which in most cases will be a happy thing. They will love the songs, they will resonate to them. And a lot of my examples involve music because music is such a powerful memory cue. And so that’s the kind of thing you can do that for a loved one and an hour of your time to put together a playlist could really give them a break from some of the anxiety that they’re feeling.

Doug Downs (18:24):

What a fascinating discussion today. Dr. Joordens, thank you so much for your time today.

Steven Joordens (18:30):

No problem. And thank you very much.

Doug Downs (18:32):

Best wishes at the conference in October.

Steven Joordens (18:34):

Cool, thank you. Thank you

Doug Downs (18:36):

If you’d like to send a message to my guest, Dr. Steven Joordens, you can email him at Steve dot Joordens, which has a double O @utoronto.ca. If you are curious about that virtually crisis conference, you can get a special discount just by being a listener to this podcast. To register, go to the website for the Center for Crisis and Risk Communications. We’ve provided a link to it in the show notes here. The conference is featuring an amazing cast of speakers. If you decide to attend, simply enter into the corporate ID box, these letters, S N S J G R. We’ve also put that code in the show notes to this podcast episode. Now with that id, you’ll get 15% off. The conference pass sells for $595. Right now it’s in early bird pricing, which is $395. So with that 15% off, it’s 336 for you right now.


And all those prices are Canadian prices. So for American listeners and British listeners, it’s even less expensive for you. And just for full disclosure, you’ll see on the website for the Center for Crisis and Risk Communications that I am listed as a senior consultant. I have done project work with them in the past just due to my experience. And I will no doubt do so again, I do not receive any money or any other consideration connected to this conference. I think it’s a great conference. And this discount is just for you if you’re interested. If you liked what you heard today, we’re hoping you choose to subscribe to Stories and Strategies and receive updated episodes automatically. We’re also hoping you choose to follow and rate this podcast on Apple Podcasts or whatever app you’re listening on. And would you do us a favor, recommend this podcast to one friend. If you have an idea for an episode or you just want to tell us something, send us a note. Would you please at info@storie@infojgrcommunications.com. Thanks for listening.