Brainstorm! The movie

What causes your brain to switch from the quiet focus needed to read (or write) these words to the frantic, goggle-eyed arousal needed to confront a frothing dog or rabid boss?

That hyper condition, popularly called the fight-or-flight response, is a hormonally inflicted surge of stress that puts all systems on alert, raises the heart rate and blood pressure, and shifts blood from the gut to the muscles.

This is not when you want to be translating Latin or solving equations, but fight-or-flight certainly fulfills its evolutionary role of allowing the body and brain to survive threatening circumstances.

After the transition, the brain regulates attention differently: A person studying Japanese woodcuts is unlikely to notice someone prowling on the other side of the art library. A person cranked up on stress hormones is unlikely to miss the lurker.

Neuroscientists long ago fingered two “stress” hormones — cortisol and noradrenaline — as playing key roles in fight-or-flight and today, a study in Science helps confirm that noradrenaline, not cortisol, triggers the transition to a different level of attention. “Many people thought cortisol would have an effect on the attention process in the early phase, but our study shows cortisol probably is not as important” as noradrenaline, says first author Erno Hermans, of the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Center in Holland.


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