The Neuroscience Behind DEI

Neuroscience 101

The brain has a huge impact on our behavior, emotions, and how we show up in the world. There are three main parts of the brain – the neocortex, the limbic system, and the amygdala. The neocortex is the rational part of the brain right behind the forehead. It’s the newest part of the brain and the least utilized. It’s responsible for rational thought, data processing, and complex problem solving.

As humans have evolved over time, the need to use our neocortex has increased significantly. Because most of our human survival was spent hunting and gathering, our limbic system has been the most active part of our brain. It is responsible for our emotions and making quick decisions (or gut instinct) to keep us alive.

In our primal days, when we might have been hunted by a saber tooth tiger, our fight or flight response was essential to our survival. When our amygdala fires up, we become aware that we are in danger, and we need to make a quick decision on whether to run or to fight the potential predator. Fast forward to today and our brain confuses innocent things as perceived predators.

Emotional Triggers

Today’s emotional triggers could be an email you got from someone, someone giving you feedback, or someone criticizing you. Not exactly a saber tooth tiger but our brains are still wired to protect ourselves, and make snap decisions based on our survival. That email or piece of feedback isn’t going to kill you, yet our brain reacts very similarly to how it would with a predator.

When my daughter was three, we used to go to the zoo frequently. The rule was if she had good behavior at the zoo and didn’t throw a fit when we left, she would get a slushy. On one beautiful, well-behaved day we were driving home in the car and she decided to take the lid off (foreshadowing is intentional parents).

We arrived back at home and as I was unpacking the car, she took her slushy inside, and went to sit on the couch to finish it. As you may have guessed, the slushy spilled everywhere. When I entered my living room, all I saw was orange- everywhere! The couch was orange, she was covered in orange, there was orange on the carpet. I felt my muscles clench. My fists balled up, my eyebrows furrowed, and my jaw tightened.

She took one look at me and said, “Mama, you’re angry.” As a three-year-old, she could recognize the emotions from my body language. I remember telling myself I was being emotionally hijacked and that I wasn’t thinking clearly. I took a deep breath, unclenched my fists, and I looked at my three-year-old. I said, “Go to the bathroom please” and then continued to take deep breaths and ask myself what do I need to do to feel a little bit better?

After a few moments, the answer was clear. I needed to get rid of the orange on the couch. I took off the couch cushions, took them outside and sprayed them off. I then cleaned up the carpet before going to the bathroom and opening the door to let her know she could come out now. She took one look at me and said, “Mama you’re happy now.” If a three-year-old can pick up on emotions, we all can.

Within a few minutes, my range of emotions were very obvious to her. I’m not proud of how I reacted that day, as I probably scared my daughter. As an ally, if we can read an emotionally-charged situation, we can find ways to calm down. Yelling or matching another person’s emotions usually makes things worse. Had I not taken those few moments to breathe, been mindful of my body language, I fear I would have said something or done something I would have seriously regretted. We all have moments like that; they are what makes us human.

Emotions can be deeply connected to the subject of diversity. Sometimes, even mentioning diversity and inclusion can trigger people. It takes them to an emotional place in their brain where they’re not able to rationally speak clearly. The words racism, sexism, and homophobia often have even more polarizing effects on folks.

I can recall a time that I was at a party with my friends and someone casually brought up that they wanted to debate climate change. I perked up. I was so interested. I asked, would it be okay if we discussed the intersections of racism with climate change? The room got quiet and people found excuses to leave. I found myself alone with the willing debater of climate change, ready to learn about the intersections of racism. Everyone else scattered because they felt uncomfortable. They were afraid they were going to say or do the wrong thing and they didn’t understand what we were going to talk about. They forgot to be curious.

Not everyone wants to be an ally.

One of the things that can help us uncover our emotional triggers is a triggers exercise. To do the exercise, think about what happens before you feel emotionally hijacked. The moment before your amygdala (fight-or-flight) takes over, and you can’t think clearly, just like I couldn’t in the orange slushy episode. What happens right before that moment? What triggers you or what has triggered you in the past? For me it’s a mess, someone not making a decision, lack of empathy or inclusion, or someone over-explaining something to me that I already know instead of being curious to learn from me.

Everyone has triggers. If you’re not aware of your triggers they will most certainly manage you. I recommend that you list three to five triggers, and then think about what a positive response would look like in that moment instead of losing control of your rational thought. Then brainstorm positive responses for those triggers. This is really helpful when discussing DEI, because if someone says something potentially harmful or microaggresses someone in your presence, you might be tempted to become emotional with them. Instead, pause, breathe, or move your body to work off the emotional energy. Then, come back to that conversation. Rarely do emotional conversations achieve positive results for inclusion.

My daughter recently learned about triggers in her second grade class. One night, in the heat of frustration about her doing her chores, she said to me, “I think I know what your triggers are. You don’t like it when I don’t do my chores.” To which I replied, “Yes, I don’t like it when people don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

Our children can easily pick up on our triggers and often can see them more clearly than we can in the moment. Knowing your triggers can help set and manage expectations of others around you.

It is helpful to have language to describe our emotions. If we don’t know how to label our triggers, and communicate our emotions when we’re feeling them, they can take charge. Think about the people you look up to most in the world? What are their common qualities? I bet one of them is that they are emotionally self-aware. We gravitate towards people that are consistent and secure in their emotions.

What’s next?

Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.