The actions these threat detection circuits trigger—to fight, freeze or flee—have momentous consequences. Enormous amounts of data must be evaluated instantaneously. If done consciously this analysis would take too long. Moreover, the demands of this complex analysis would overload the feeble capacity of our conscious mind. “I wasn’t thinking,” Rawls told the Post while recalling his heroic act in the Bethesda parking lot. “Had I stopped, thought about it, weighted the pros or cons, had I had time to react, I might’ve scared myself out of helping.”
It may be comforting to indulge in speculation about how you would have responded to the deadly attack on Sutherland, but the fact is that it is difficult to know how anyone will react to a sudden threat. A person’s response depends on a complex set of situational factors, the nature of the threat, and the internal states of the body and mind at that moment—all assessed in a fraction of a second and acted upon instantly. The multiple factors and uncertainties mean that there is rarely one correct response to a sudden threat. The identical reactions Sutherland and I had to being robbed, with opposite outcomes, are a dramatic illustration of this paradox.
Some of the factors determining how one will respond to sudden danger are being identified as neuroscience begins to tease apart the complex circuitry of our brain’s threat detection mechanism. This circuitry is largely subcortical—that is, it operates beneath the level of consciousness.