Illuminating the truth - The role of the amgydala

An understanding of the physiologic response to perceived threats informs risk communication strategy.

Scientists, curious and driven individuals, struggle at times to meet the entirety of our charge. We are trained to communicate with precision, yet often we fail to sway non-technical audiences. That made me wonder, what gets in the way? In particular, why do non-technical audiences not understand the value of research?

The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. - Rachel Carson

First in a multi-part series examining what hinders effective communication with non-technical audience, this post considers the role of instinctive behavior in communication.

We Ignore the Amygdala

Of the seven influence tactics employed in organizational behavior, scientists often default to rational persuasion, a tactic leveraging the rhetorical appeals of ethos and logos. However, science is a fundamentally human endeavor and we must consider pathos, the power of emotion, when developing a communication strategy.

'Shame on you'

On the topic of pathos, I recall a presentation some years ago where the speaker uttered those words to a convention hall of scientists. You might wonder whom and in what context, and how this pertains to the broader topic of effective communication?

The 39th annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology featured as the keynote speaker David Ropeik - an author, journalist, and lecturer at Harvard University. With a fascinating narrative style, Ropeik pulled us into his story: imagine you are walking in the woods and you see something out of the corner of your eye.

Imagine how you might automatically recoil from a long snake-like object before you, one heartbeat later, recognize it as a garden hose or stick.

Surely you can remember a time when you've flinched only to realize what made you flinch was something quite benign? Or perhaps you've heard a parent describe acting "without thinking" to rescue their child from peril?

Ropeik explained this "flinch" response in the context of nervous system anatomy; the amygdala, sometimes called the "primitive brain", is responsible for survival instincts including threat perception.

The amygdala reacts faster to external stimuli than the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, sometimes called the "executive brain", is where we solve problems and where we decide whether to trust.

Our survival instincts respond faster than our rational brain can process perceived threats.

To his rapt audience Ropeik then delivered the punchline: fear is a normal response to a perceived threat and shame on us for not recognizing that fact.

Humbled in that moment, I quietly acknowledged instances where in focusing on the scientific evidence of risk (or lack thereof), I had failed to acknowledge the visceral response expressed by my non-technical audience. He was right, shame on me.

How do we acknowledge the role of the amygdala?

Fear in your audience, even if irrational, stands between you and the effective communication of your message. One of the challenges of a toxicologist is to communicate risk information to audiences that are already afraid. When in an advocacy role, one must tread lightly to maintain credibility while exposing dis-confirming information. Above all else, it is essential to acknowledge and understand the fears and misperceptions of your audience.

A tightly held erroneous belief is not one that yields to reason. As a result, the goal of communication is not to influence or convince, but to inform. The hope is that dis-confirming information will eventually cause reevaluation of that belief.

Resources available on risk communication include the classic text by Peter Sandman available online at no cost. A link is provided in the bibliography. There are myriad other resources available including the blogs and books by David Ropeik.

And how we explain things matters. Information communicated in a confusing matter can serve only to enhance fear and distrust. The next installment in this series describes the process of creating plain language summaries, as required by the Plain Writing Act.

Why bother?

If as researchers we seek the informed consent of patients enrolled in studies, we are ethically bound to understand their level of knowledge and develop the means to communicate effectively. And if as scientists we seek to protect public health from harm, our task is more achievable if we have an informed, engaged populace.

Good science poorly communicated = poor science.