Enhancing crisis exercising through understanding the human brain’s architecture

19 junio, 2020

Alejandro Aristizábal Correa explains why an understanding of how the human brain works can help organizations develop better crisis exercising and training.

The human brain architecture is composed of three main systems or parts:

The reptilian brain is the oldest brain we share with the most ancient animals, which controls and responds to sensorial stimuli like heat, pain, and cold, but it is also responsible for the instinctive response, like danger or urgency, triggering an immediate ‘fight or flight’ reaction, different in every individual. This later component is the behavioral part of the reptilian brain, known as the enteric function (1).

The limbic brain is the mammals’ brain, which controls the emotions like happiness, anger, and sadness. This brain is responsible for the primary emotional response to the memory of a traumatic event.

These two lower brains are not rational in the purest sense. This is, they do not need a rational concept of pain or heat in the case of the reptilian brain; or the concept of anger or happiness to produce a concise and strong response of the limbic brain. In fact, the definition of these concepts is the product of the neocortex.

The neocortex is responsible for the executive function and is especially large in humans, which allows very complex learning processes, analysis, and planning capabilities.

The way the three systems work together is bidirectional. From a bottom to top perspective, the upper brains modulate the incoming signals from their lower neighbors. This is how our emotions produced by the limbic brain are turned into feelings which is the rationalized interpretation of such stimuli. Likewise, the limbic brain takes the reptilian input signals producing emotional attitudes. From a top-down perspective, the rationalization of external or personal, yet traumatic events, makes our neocortex teach our limbic brain how to reinterpret the emotions already created by sensorial and traumatic events coming from the limbic brain.

However, as for the limbic brain, the lessons coming from the neocortex are not a rival to the impressions received from the reptilian brain. In other words, when a stressful situation is forcing an urgent and serious decision, the executive function of the neocortex is temporarily removed from its privileged position.

A crisis, according to Steven Venette, Ph.D., University of Southern Mississippi, “…is a process of transformation where the old system can no longer be maintained” (2). This has happened with all kinds of crises throughout history.  We can only name them properly in the past tense; this is because it is not possible to have an objective view of the transformation when we are in the middle of the crisis. In fact, when we have come through a crisis, we tend to name it in creative ways to relieve our stress and confusion with expressions like “a challenging situation” or “a new paradigm”. Neither animals nor humans want to be within an unmanaged situation that threatens our most valuable things. This reaction is an escape mostly led by the reptilian brain that aims to find the shortest way out from a frightening situation.

Let us take a closer look at a more familiar example of how this important part of the human brain shows up to take control of the most critical situations we may face in our lives.

From an emergency planning perspective, how certain are we that an upcoming emergency response (ER) test is properly preparing ER teams and employees for when a real emergency strikes? Many of us have heard of or have had the experience of getting paralyzed into inaction, overwhelmed by a situation we never thought we’d experience.

Let us remember that the permanent stimuli-reaction bonds stored in our limbic brain are the result of highly emotional events. That is why crisis training must be stressful and realistic enough to raise the adrenaline and cortisol levels of candidates significantly, or the desired responses may not occur when coping with a real crisis. In other words, if people taking part in a crisis exercise are not convinced of the possibility of facing such a real-life situation, it will be simply a rational exercise. This means that the lessons will be archived in the brain’s frontal lobe, where academic knowledge, planning, and analytical processes reside and will be only useful for a conference or a project where the time-to-respond is not a critical factor and unpredictable consequences are not part of the scenario.

Another consideration is the impact that a crisis leader’s emotional commitment to his / her organization has on crisis decision making. The stronger the affiliation the leader has to the organization, the greater the participation of the reptilian and limbic brains in the decision-making process will be. As the reptilian brain handles all our instinctive behaviors and the limbic brain has stored our earliest education and traumatic experiences, it means that during a crisis, besides the expert (the neocortex), there is seated a twelve-year-old crisis committee member (reptilian-limbic system) who is more determined, and therefore more authoritative, than its expert fellow.

The above means that when it comes to crisis management, it is important to try to put leaders in a realistic crisis situation in order to understand how they are likely to react in a real situation. Standard crisis training that is generally conducted through a crisis scenario with the appropriate scripts and injects to strengthen and/or promote specific decision-making competencies will not achieve this because it does not take the key emotional map of the participants into consideration.


  1. Today it is known that the enteric system is the enteric nervous system, considered an extension of the brain; whose neurons produce more serotonin (the hormone of mood control) than that produced by the brain’s neurons.
  2. A crisis is a process of self-transformation forced by events where the well-known mature procedures fail, and a ‘new organization’ is required to adapt and survive.

The author

With more than fifteen years of experience in telecommunications networks and business continuity in more than six industries, Alejandro AristizábalCorrea is the author of ‘Probability of Interruption and Business Impact’, a book that approaches business continuity from a mathematical perspective, including some fundamentals on Risk Level calculations. The book is available as printed and Kindle versions on Amazon.