In a study published Monday, scientists used a Lord of the Rings roleplaying game to reveal what exactly is going on in the brain during the fight-or-flight response. The fantastically nerdy experiment asked participants to pretend they were Frodo and decide what to do when confronted by the big baddies of Middle Earth: Saruman the White Wizard or Sauron, who is literally the Lord of the Ring. Their options? Either step up and “fight” the study participants playing the villains, or avoid confrontation by putting on the One Ring to Rule Them All.
Lead study author Macià Buades-Rotger, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Neurology at the University of Lübeck, explains in eNeuro how he used this role-playing game to assess what parts of the brain become active when a person is confronted with the chance to battle. While people who chose to fight also had to choose how intense and how quick their “retaliation” would be, their efforts didn’t really have much of an effect on the outcome; the task was designed in a way that participants would lose two-thirds of the trials regardless of what they chose. What was more important to Buades-Rotger was finding out what was going on in participants’ brains while they decided whether or not they were brave little hobbits.
By scanning the brains of the participants as they made their decisions, Buades-Rotger and his team discovered that when participants decided to fight, activity in their brains’ orbitofrontal cortex and sensorimotor cortex increased. However, when people opted to disappear using the Ring — that’s the “flight” response — to avoid confrontation, their “mentalizing network” became more engaged. The important region in this network is the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to regulate tasks relating to emotions, the self, and evaluative decisions.
Running away also increased activity in the amygdala, especially in the basolateral region, which plays a crucial role the ability to rapidly detect threats. But it reduced activity in the parts of the brain involved in being concerned with others, which indicated to the researchers that when a person is threatened, they start to think about themselves more than other people’s feelings and intentions. In other words, when a person runs away from a confrontation with a Sauron-like villain, their only goal is to save themselves.
This study provides further support for what scientists have previously known about the fight-or-flight response: When a person is afraid, their automatic physiological response is to save their own skin. Previous research has also shown that the body will have other reactions when choosing to fight or flee, such as increased sweating and the overwhelming urge to use the bathroom. That’s fine and natural, but a tough break when a Ringwraith is after you.