A Dose of Smácht. A Blog by Pádraic Ó Máille. Creator of Smácht.

The Power of Pausing.

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‘Put brain in motion before moving mouth’
Cháv Dever

I remember it as if it was yesterday.

It was the day of the infamous meeting of Mayo and
Meath in the 1996 All Ireland final.

I had surprisingly succeeded in traversing safely by
car the entire breadth of the country from Westport to
Dublin in the company of three ardent Mayo football
fans. As we approached the capital via the Quays and
began to mingle with both Meath and Mayo supporters
the excitement in the car became palpably more
intense. It was very probably this heady mixture of
well intentioned ribaldry and surging anticipation that
caused Cháv Dever, the driver, to inadvertently go up
a one way street that was apparently not a one way
street the last time Mayo were in an All Ireland final.

Not for the last time that day would luck desert Mayo.
A ruddy, fresh faced Gárda appeared from behind a
squad car and flagged us down. Dever, always and
ever a consummate communicator, responded with
aplomb.

‘Morning Sergeant’ he said politely.

The young Gárda, partly surprised and clearly
flattered, paused to issue his ultimatum.

‘Up from the country I suppose’ he said in what was
intended to be a cursory slap on the wrists but an ‘on
with you and don’t do it again’ comment.

Everything would have proceeded swimmingly too
had Jimmy Mullaney from Kiltimagh been able to
contain his emotions from the front passenger seat.

‘I’d say you’re not up here too long yourself’ he
quipped to the rapidly reddening Gárda.

Waterloo was well and truly lost and we all ended up
coughing out £20 to pay the fine.

Cháv Dever would later put it succinctly to Mullaney in
the snug of Toners pub in Baggot Street.

‘Mullaney’ he said paternalistically. ‘In the all too likely
event that we find ourselves in a crisis again,
remember first to put brain in motion before moving
mouth.’ And although the subtlety of the comment
was somewhat lost on Mullaney it would be one of
many salutary lessons he learned that day.

What Dever could be forgiven for is suggesting to
Mullaney to speed his brain up rather than counselling
him to pause it altogether. Only recently has
neuroscience discovered the connection between two
separate but connected parts of your brain – the
amygdala, or primitive brain, and the prefrontal cortex.

In fMRI scans (the best scan for showing brain activity
in real time), when subjects are shown a scary image
or one that angers them the amygdala lights up like a
Christmas tree. The amygdala is that primal part of
our brain that activates the ‘fight, flee, freeze’
mechanism. It was entirely appropriate in another era
when survival depended on more primitive means.
Nowadays, more often than not, it can, as in the case
of Mullaney, be an impediment.

Dr. Joshua Gordon, a neuroscientist and assistant
professor at Columbia University explains in the book
’18 Minutes’ by Peter Bregman. ‘The amygdala is the
emotional response centre of the brain. When
something unsettling happens in the outside world, it
immediately evokes an emotion. The key is cognitive
control of the amygdala by the prefrontal cortex.’

What Dr. Gordon is saying in Mullaney speak is that
when we are confronted by situations or people that
anger or frighten us it’s useful to pause before we
respond. Even a pause of five seconds enables the
prefrontal cortex to assess more accurately the
appropriate response.

Try it out this week. Pause. Take a series of deep
breaths. Then act.

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