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Animals surprised by a loud noise or a sound suggesting danger freeze in their tracks, become silent, and scan the environment for the threat. We share both the startle and freeze responses with our more primitive cousins. The logic of these responses is clear: being still and silent make us less likely to be seen or heard, and prepares us to respond to a potential threat. Research suggests that during these states of high arousal, the area of our brain responsible for the production of speech (Broca's area) becomes inhibited. Thus, the conservation of the ancient reptilian and old-mammalian startle-and-freeze responses in the new-mammalian brain may result in diminished capacity for language in certain situations.
This is a high price for a human to pay for being afraid. Putting our feelings into words and constructing narratives of our experiences contribute invaluably to emotional regulation, the integration of neural networks of emotion and cognition, and the experience of a coherent sense of self. This artifact of evolution, which silences people during times of danger or attack, is especially problematic in situations of abuse, or when people have endured the "unspeakable horrors" of torture, war, or the extermination of friends and family.
An additional problem connected to this primitive, built-in instinct to freeze and go silent results from the fact that Broca's area contributes to networks of prediction and anticipation. Its inhibition during times of danger or attack thus affects people's ability to learn from the experience—which may be a reason why traumatized individuals seem to have more than their share of subsequent accidents, bad relationships, and misfortune. The compounded loss of words and predictive abilities enhances the long-term impact of the trauma by increasing the probability of dissociation and revictimization.
Wired for Projection and Self-Deception
Human brains possess neural circuits that become activated as we observe and interact with those around us. Neurons called mirror neurons in the premotor regions of our frontal lobes (first discovered in macaque monkeys) fire when we observe someone engaging in a specific behavior, such as saying a word or grasping an object. Some mirror neurons are so specific that they fire only when an object is grasped at certain angles by particular fingers; these neurons fire when we see the action performed by someone else and fire again when we perform the action ourselves. Mirror neurons link observations and actions, allowing us to (a) learn from others by watching them, (b) anticipate and predict others' actions, and (c) activate emotional states supportive of emotional resonance and empathy. All three of these functions support group cohesion and the spread of culture.