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Law and Crime

Into the Red Zone and Over the Edge

High stress and the mind's evolution can combine to make us do very, very dangerous things, on both sides of the criminal justice system.

Vector Stock Images
Source: Vector Stock Images

In physical fitness, the “red zone” is generally a good thing, maximizing cardiovascular stress in your workouts. In criminal justice, the red zone is often less desirable. Especially when it’s trying to kill you or destroy your career.

In the red zone, under very high levels of stress, unarmed suspects will draw on armed police with amazing things. In my own experience, suspects have drawn on officers with a power drill, a toy rocket, and a shoe. Less than brilliant. Not a lot of firepower in a shoe.

Law enforcement officers, arresting a specific suspect, are often under high stress; and they are sometimes shot by somebody they didn’t notice, standing to the side of the action. Surviving officers, after the fact, may sound confused; they looked all around, of course, they reported seeing the shooter, but not exactly seeing the shooter, but they sort of saw the shooter, but...

Also under stress, officers in the act of apprehending a suspect sometimes curse and swear; a poor idea in this age of the cellphone camera, especially from a public relations standpoint. Some officers do it anyway.

Why do these things happen? Why, under stress, in the red zone, do we do things that appear to be well below our normal levels of intelligence?

The answer lies in what we might call the “natural” red zone, the human fight-or-flight response.

Under stress, we pump blood through our bodies like a tidal wave. The ability to do this evolved for good reasons. In the ancient world, an emergency flow of blood through our bodies energized our muscles, letting us run away from sabertooth tigers or bash them with clubs more effectively. Enhanced blood flow transported important neurohormones through our bodies quickly, making us more energetic.

However, “fight-or-flight” also has a downside. Under extreme stress, the human brain changes into something else entirely.

In fight-or-flight, as we necessarily prioritize our muscles, we take blood-born resources away from other functions. These include digestion: If you might be dead in five minutes, who really cares what happens to the chili dog and diet soda currently languishing in your stomach? This, by the way, is one of many reasons why people who suffer chronic stress may experience digestive problems.

And if fight-or-flight does that much damage to your guts, imagine what it’s doing to your brain.

Blood-born energy resources are key. The brain is an enormous energy hog, weighing about 2% of our total body mass, but consuming over 20% of our energetic resources. Those resources are carried by our blood flow, which is dramatically reduced to our brains under stress, essentially in favor of an increase to our muscles.

The functions of the brain are spread throughout its several lobes, but under stress, in the red zone, you just don’t have enough blood to go around. So which lobes of the brain do you starve? The occipital, where vision abides? The temporal, where hearing and object interpretation happen? The parietal, where you understand spatial relations, or the back parts of the frontal lobes, which control your motion?

No. All these functions are essential in fight-or-flight, in the modern or the ancient world, whether you’re trying to bash a sabertooth tiger with your club or run away with your club bitten in half. So, you can’t reduce resources very much to any of these areas.

But you can reduce resource flow to the pre-frontal cortex.

Which, unfortunately, is the brain area that makes us smart. The area in which we interpret things, and work with information stored in memory.

It’s the part of the brain that you want working perfectly if you want to respond properly to a law enforcement officer, or to make a legal arrest, or to tell a coherent story in court (Sharps, 2017; also see Artwohl & Christensen, 2019).

No prehistoric hunter was ever grilled by a Paleolithic attorney about how many mammoths he saw; or why he poked a mammoth with the wrong end of his spear, to the hilarity or all; or why, on discovering he had done so, he uttered that foulest of ancient dirty words, “OOG!” Memory mistakes, tactical errors, and cursing under stressful circumstances are modern, not ancient, legal issues. In the distant past, they weren't as important.

But of course, these are exactly the kinds of mistakes that can end a career, or a life, in the modern world of criminal justice and law enforcement.

Under stress (Klinger, 2004; Grossman, 2004; also see Sharps, 2017), we make exactly these types of errors in the fight-or-flight, natural red zone. There are many other types of errors. But these are among the most important:

  1. Failures of cognition — It’s a bad idea to draw down on the SWAT team with a shoe.
  2. Tunnel vision — We see the suspect out front. We miss the killer on the side.
  3. Intrusive language — Under stress, we frequently curse and swear until sailors run away with their hands over their ears. Under stress, we may do this a lot. Which is not our best bet in professional environments.

All of these phenomena are normal. These brain-based cognitive dynamics can happen in all of us: suspects, officers, witnesses, and victims. We all have human brains, and we all evolved in the age of the sabertooth tiger when a lot of these cognitive factors didn’t matter.

But in today’s legal system, and in law enforcement, these things that really didn’t matter much in the past have become critically important issues.

I hope to devote the next installments of The Forensic View to important aspects of each of these issues; to intrusive speech, to tunnel vision, and to failures of memory and interpretation. All are factors which were of little importance in the ancient world; but all are factors which, today, can take your career or your life.