Image via WikipediaDo you remember the old cop shows? “Freeze! Police! Put your hands in the air!” Now it’s “Stop Police!” - It’s weird that I have a bone of contention with this change. But I do. I understand why the change was made; “stop” is a universal word, a word that is recognized in most languages - along with “T-shirt,” “cool,” and “okay.”
That last one, “okay,” is why we’re taught to thump our plastic CPR dummy on its shoulder and yell, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” The presumption being that if the possible victim were from Northern Siberia or the African !Kung Tribe, they would still understand what was being asked. And so if the person had just decided to take a nap on the sidewalk, they could open their eyes and say “Okay,” and I would know to leave the napper alone - that an intervention with my crack CPR/Artificial breath skills was not needed. However, I would suggest that if I were being chased by a police officer yelling at me in a language that I did not understand - I’d still get the gist. A figure with the authority to lock me up is yelling at me? I have some choices to make.
The choices that can be made in the cop yelling scenario come down to the limbic system. Your rational brain may be saying one thing, but your primordial self, the self that kept your genes swimming in the pool and not dinner for a mastodon (okay mastodons were herbivores, but you get my point). Your limbic brain can say three things:
1. Flee! In our collective backgrounds, this was a bad, bad idea. We’re slow and weak compared to the other animals on the survival show called Earth. Mostly it was a feline that was trying to eat us and movement set off the “MmmmYummm!” response in our predators that rarely turned out well.
2. Fight! Again, we are slow and weak. What’s a human to do? Even with our incredible brains developing incredible weapons, chances are still bad for the human. The last choice - which is actually our brain’s first choice, since it is the most effective - is…
By yelling FREEZE! The police officer bypasses the intellectual brain (which probably isn’t engaged at this point anyway) and speaks right to the inner caveman (or woman). “Hey. I see you. I’m an authority who can put you in jail. You have three choices. Run. Bad choice. Fight. Really bad choice. Freeze. Ah, that’s the ticket. You freeze and we’ll do things the easy way with no one getting anymore hurt than required.”
STOP! To me sounds like a yellow light - a choice. I could try to run it; I think I have enough momentum to make it. Or, I will put on the brakes and come to the asked for stop. “STOP!“ is an intellectual choice - and the intellect is not engaged, so why do it? Because the !Kung tribesman might not understand? Please. (I’m not picking on !Kung tribesmen - I just love the clicking consonants, and it is as far from English as I think we can get.)
FREEZE! Is not always our friend. I’ve experienced the limbic freeze on occasions when I thought that maybe it was a miracle that my genes made it this far. I remember going to Connecticut to learn how to drive our Land Cruiser over rocks and such. I wasn’t really all that jazzed about doing this, but it was a learning opportunity that had presented itself, and I’m addicted to those. Even though I had been almost a week without sleep, and knew that I was an idiot to go forward, there I was, for six-hours straight, driving down the side of a mountain using the engine brake. At the end of the day, my intellect-self was all used up. I sat at the top of yet another hill. My instructor wanted me to drive between the tree and rock at the bottom. My eyesight was so blurry that I couldn’t see the rock and tree.
”I can’t see. I think I’m done for the day,” I said. “Just this one last run and we’ll be done for the day,” said my instructor.
Bad choice. I started down the hill and my limbic system went into overdrive. I screamed like a girl. My body froze. I remember thinking that I wanted to hand the steering wheel to the instructor, so he could drive. My foot froze on the gas peddle. I tried with every part of my intellect to override my limbic system and lift my foot. The best I could do was to edge my left foot onto the brake slowing us down. My instructor was laughing his head off beside me thinking I was whooping it up as the last hoorah of a productive day of scaling rocks in a car. Yeah. Not so much. As we started to hit trees, it dawned on him. “Hey, this chick is not in control of her body.” He reached over - and this is the part that I don’t get - grabbed my legs and pulled BOTH of my feet off their respective pedals. Now, personally, if I had my brain still functioning, and I was the instructor, I would have left the brake foot down and only pulled up the gas pedal foot. But I have to give the guy a break - he probably was battling his own limbic system as his 50,000$ car hit tree after tree. Sigh. Sometimes these things don’t work out quite like our ancestors might have hoped.
The limbic system does not only engage in instances of imminent danger. Our brains are always searching our environment to try to keep us safe. Our limbic system is always engaged. And to this end is always making little adjustments to our bodies. These show up in our body language. If the limbic concept is interesting to you, may I suggest a book?
What Every BODY is saying - An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People by Joe Navarro
In his book, he talks about the limbic system and how it controls subtle behaviors. Applying this information would add nuance and authenticity to characters’ reactions.