As we honor Capt. Groberg with the nation’s highest award for military valor, and we set aside one day, Veteran’s Day, to reflect on all the men and women who served their country in the armed forces, let’s take a moment to examine the most astonishing and noble characteristic of our species–unhesitating self-sacrifice for others.
As recounted in an article in today’s Washington Post, Army Capt. Florent Groberg had a weird feeling about the mission as their helicopter touched down on August 8, 2012 in Kunar province in Afghanistan. “Something seemed out of place,” he said explaining the eerie sense of alarm that welled up inside him for no specific reason that he could pinpoint.
Suddenly he spotted a man in dark baggy clothing approaching Groberg’s squad. Gut instinct wrested control over conscious deliberation and Groberg instantly dashed toward the man and tackled him, sensing somehow that the stranger might be a suicide bomber. “I hit him, grabbed him, tried to push him as far away and throw him to the ground,” Groberg said. Sgt. Andrew Mahoney, who would later receive the Silver Star for Valor, immediately joined Groberg in trying to subdue the man. The bomb detonated as Groberg’s body took the ferocious impact and shrapnel of the fiery explosion. The lives of many in the squad were saved by Groberg who used his body to shield others from the bomb blast, but the explosion killed four men in the squad and several others were severely wounded. Groberg suffered grievous injuries that required 33 surgeries to treat. The wounds have left him with life-altering disability and physical pain.
Groberg’s treatment and rehabilitation too place over three years since the bomb blast at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Looking out the window of my office I see the towering concrete skyscraper of the Naval Hospital, which was built during the Roosevelt administration, projecting into the sky like a giant obelisk at the center of what is now Walter Reed Medical Center. I see it every day. Knowing the trauma, sacrifice, healing, and loss of life taking place inside that tower brings profound gratitude every day. Capt. Groberg and the men and women like him represent the best in human nature.
All bodily actions are the result of brain circuits controlling behavior in response to constant assessment of environmental and internal conditions. What such heroism illustrates is how much of the human brain is devoted to threat detection and rapid response operating automatically without any deliberation. The human brain can hold only a tiny fraction of the information in our conscious mind that our senses are taking in constantly and evaluating for threats. The capacity of our conscious brain is horribly limited. Long division, for example, is difficult to perform without pencil and paper because the capacity of the brain’s working memory is so feeble, it can’t retain the intermediate result of one simple arithmetic step long enough to perform the next. The unconscious brain, in contrast, is constantly monitoring and evaluating enormous volumes of data and situational information, which it conveys to our consciousness in the only way it can, by multicolored emotions–gut feelings.
People in combat, secret service agents, and others who must act aggressively to confront a threat in situations where a split-second hesitation could have monumental consequences, develop these unconscious abilities to the highest level, and they learn to rely upon them. So do elite athletes who must respond instantly to sudden situations, be it on the football field, backcountry ski slopes, the race track, and many other dangerous or fast moving sports.
This is the neuroscience behind Capt. Groberg’s gut reaction that warned him that something was amiss. There were too many subtle factors to bring to his conscious mind to alert him to the deadly threat that was approaching, but working feverishly beneath the level of conscious, his brain “knew” he was in danger and it signaled that conclusion with the gut twisting emotion of alarm.
In many threatening situations, conscious deliberation would be too slow. This is why the human brain and the brains of other animals have a rapid response threat detection circuit that can react to a sudden danger in a flash and without conscious deliberation. This high-speed circuitry races beneath the cerebral cortex where consciousness arises. If your purse is snatched on the street, it is this subcortical circuitry that will dictate your immediate response to fight back, freeze, or flee.
Using new methods to study these circuits of threat detection, which span the brain from the hypothalamus to the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex, these circuits are being traced out in fine detail. This research is showing that different types of threats activate different specific circuits that launch an aggressive response to a specific type of trigger. The circuit that propels a mother to protect her young in jeopardy is distinct from the circuit that controls our instantaneous response to defend ourselves in a physical attack, for example, or to act, as Capt. Groberg did, to defend someone else.
This circuitry, however, can misfire. When it does we call this behavior “snapping.” Whether it is the aggressive behavior of snapping in road rage, or aggressive behavior to defend your property, it is this same neural circuitry of threat response that is involved. This is the double-edged sword of this rapid threat detection and response circuit deep inside the human brain. Like any brain function, this one is subject to malfunctioning. For this reason, it is especially important that neuroscience is now exploring this unconscious realm of the brain that triggers sudden aggression.
The point here is to provide some illumination into how, at the level of brain function, such instant and selfless heroism as Capt. Groberg displayed occurs from the perspective of neuroscience. This “dissection” should amplify our respect and appreciation of such heroism, not in any way diminish it. Just as understanding how the genius of Albert Einstein can be traced to particular highly developed functions in specific cortical regions involving abstract thought, mathematical ability, and imagination, new research to analyze the neurobiological underpinnings of threat response illuminates our understanding of this vital aspect of the human brain.
Clearly different individuals differ in various aspects of cognitive and other brain functions. Not everyone with Capt. Groberg that day sensed the same threat. Others would have missed or ignored the danger. In the face of a perceived life-or-death threat some people will freeze while others will fight. Different types of threats and different types of triggers will provoke different responses in different individuals, because of individual differences in the neuro circuitry of their brain’s threat detection and response mechanism. These differences have their roots in both genetics and environment, and thus different people will be more highly sensitive to different triggers of sudden aggression. A mother may respond passively to a purse snatcher, but violently defend her child, for example.
In Capt. Groberg, we see and honor the most noble of all human behaviors–self-sacrifice for another person. “People are asking me, ‘What were you thinking?’” Groberg says about his split-second response to save other people’s lives in exchange for his own. The answer is that unlike someone else, Groberg did not think–he reacted. There is no higher honor a nation can give in recognition of such a person than the Medal of Honor that the President of the United States will drape around his neck on behalf of us all.
Lamothe, D. Army Captain to get Medal of Honor. The Washington Post, p. A10, November 11, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/11/10/after-tackling-a-suicide-bomber-this-soldier-must-swap-running-for-the-medal-of-honor/
Fields, R.D. Why We Snap, Dutton Press.