Inside Disruption Blog

Brain Based Understanding of the Aftermath of Potentially Disruptive Events

Dennis Potter
March 22, 2016

David Rock has written extensively in the NeuroLeadership Journal on how the brain works in understanding social relationships and human behavior. In an article called SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, he delves into this subject in depth. After reading the article, I was struck by how many of the principles discussed were perhaps applicable to a better understanding of people’s responses after experiencing a Potentially Disruptive Event (PDE). So drawing heavily on the article, let me share of those observations.


“…two themes are emerging from social neuroscience. Firstly, that much of our motivation driving social behavior is governed by an overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward (Gordon, 2000). secondly, that several domains of social experience draw upon the same brain networks to maximize reward and minimize threat as the brain networks used for primary survival needs (Lieberman and Eisenberger, 2008). In other words, social needs are treated in much the same way in the brain as the need for food and water.


The SCARF model involves five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. And fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.


These five domains activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry (and associated networks) of the brain.”


While Rock describes SCARF as a method for collaborating and influencing others for organizations and leaders, it strikes me that in the aftermath of a PDE these are many of the same domains that are temporarily challenged after an event. For people who identify an event as falling within the disruptive to disabling categories. By their nature, and our self-talk/interpretations of them, they would naturally seem to be disquieting at the very least. Let’s take a look at each one.


Status is about relative importance to others.


Depending on how I evaluate my performance in responding to the event, I can easily wonder how other people perceive me. How am I handling my perceived self-identity? Is it strengthened or diminished?


Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.


Because PDE are typically unexpected events, it can significantly challenge a person’s view of the world, their workplace, or their life.


Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.


My reactions might feel like they are totally out of control. I can’t stop thinking about the event. Will I ever get my confidence back? Am I going crazy?


Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe.


Am I the only one feeling this way? If this can happen to ___, then it could happen to me/my family/my department/etc.


Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people


Why did this have to happen to ___? Why did my higher spiritual power allow this to happen? It’s just not fair!


According to integrative Neuroscientist Evian Gordon, the ‘minimize danger and maximize reward’ principle is an overarching, organizing principle of the brain (Gordon, 2000).


The approach-avoid response is a survival mechanism designed to help people stay alive by quickly and easily remembering what is good and bad in the environment. The brain encodes one type of memory for food that tasted disgusting in the past, and a different type of memory for food that was good to eat. The amygdala, a small almond-shaped object that is part of the limbic system, plays a central role in remembering whether something should be approached or avoided. The amygdala (and its associated networks) are believed to activate proportionally to the strength of an emotional response.”


This can help to explain why people sometimes have difficulty returning to the workplace if the event happened there. The workplace can be seen as dangerous, thus the amygdala fires up the warning symptoms that something is wrong.


“The limbic system can processes stimuli before it reaches conscious awareness. One study showed that subliminally presented nonsense words that were similar to threatening words, were still categorized as possible threats by the amygdala (Naccache et al, 2005). Brainstem – Limbic networks process threat and reward cues within a fifth of a second, providing you with ongoing nonconscious intuition of what is meaningful to you in every situation of your daily life (Gordon et al. Journal of integrative Neuroscience, Sept 2008). “


People only have an awareness of the results of the chemicals flooding our brains and bodies, not the science behind it. When we are dealing with the aftermath of an event that has been disruptive for us, the ability of our brain to function normally is compromised. There is a decrease in oxygen and glucose available to the prefrontal cortex (where higher executive functions reside) that impacts our ability to think, to problem solve, and to act. There may be a tendency to take a more cautious, familiar stance because any other options are seen as too dangerous. If previous actions in the face of stress are functional, this might be OK, but frequently people might return to dysfunctional actions (return to substance abuse).


So what are the implications of all this. I think it is important that we understand the science behind the reactions. It, hopefully, gives us greater confidence in understanding how to help employees after an event.


Secondly, it reinforces our approach to helping others. We are suggesting using the principles of crisis intervention strategies proposed by Hobfoll, Watson et al of promoting: 1) a sense of safety, 2) calming, 3) a sense of self– and community efficacy, 4) connectedness, and 5) hope.


Helping people to understand why they might be impacted, remind them of their natural, proven coping skills, and giving them some ideas of things they could try that helped others seems to be a good practice for us.



Gordon, E. (2000). Integrative Neuroscience: Bringing together biological, psychological and clinical models of the human brain. Singapore: Harwood Academic Publishers.


Hobfoll, Stevan E., Patricia Watson, Carl C. Bell, Richard A. Bryant, Melissa J. Brymer, Matthew J. Friedman, Merle Friedman, Berthold P.R. Gersons, Joop T.V.M de Jong, Christopher M. Layne, Shira Maguen, Yuval Neria, Ann E. Norwood, Robert S. Pynoos, Dori Reissman, Josef I. Ruzek, Arieh Y. Shalev, Zahava Solomon, Alan M. Steinberg, and Robert J. Ursano (Psychiatry 70(4) Winter 2007 283)


Lieberman & Eisenberg (2008) The pains and pleasures of social life, NeuroLeadership Journal, edition 1.

Dennis Potter