The Blame Game: Adrenaline Edition

By Kate Wheeling
BU News Service

Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman outraged 49ers’ fans everywhere when he made the play in the NFC title game that propelled the Washington team onto Super Bowl glory. In a post-game interview, the brazen cornerback proclaimed himself the best in the NFL and railed against rival players in a rant that angered more than just San Franciscans.  The next day, Sherman apologized, explaining it was his “adrenaline talking,” and hoped all would be forgiven. But can the hormone really make us say things we don’t mean?

Not really.

adrenaline
A vial of adrenaline—of the sort that might be injected into a failing heart to bolster chest compressions and electric shocks. Photo by Jfoldmei.

Adrenaline has a long history of being misunderstood. It was first purified and patented in 1900 by Japanese biotechnologist Jokichi Takamine. The isolated hormone rapidly became the miracle “cure du jour.” It was said to stifle cancer, the bubonic plague, even bed wetting. Surgeon George Crile stopped animal’s hearts and then restarted them with shots of adrenaline in public demonstrations. The idea that adrenaline can revive the dead is still celebrated in pop culture today. Everyone remembers the jarring scene in Pulp Fiction when Uma Thurman’s character Mia overdoses and takes a syringe of adrenaline to the chest. Outside of Hollywood, this drastic measure would not have been so effective.Adrenaline is used to help jump start hearts, but only in conjunction with chest compressions or electric shocks. Adrenaline is not the silver bullet it was once thought to be, but it does play a critical role in the fight or flight response—the rush we experience in dangerous or stressful situations.

That rush starts in the brain. When you get excited, the hypothalamus, a structure tucked away in the limbic system—the emotional center of the brain—gets to work signals the adrenal glands to dump adrenaline and noradrenaline into the blood stream. The hormones race around the body, raising heart rate and respiration, directing blood flow away from the intestines and towards the muscles, and directing the liver to release glucose into the blood. Noradrenaline is also released in the brain, where it triggers arousal and makes us more vigilant.

These events prime the body for action, make us feel energized, ready and able to outrun or outsmart our adversaries, and more likely to blurt things we don’t mean. But adrenaline never actually enters the brain, at least not the same adrenaline that’s pumped out from the adrenals (some studies suggest that insignificant amounts of adrenaline may be released directly into the brain alongside noradrenaline). It just can’t cross the blood-brain-barrier. So what’s really making us say things without thinking?

It’s the emotional state itself—the excitement—that lowers our inhibitions. Sensory information coming in through our eyes and ears is picked up by the thalamus, another limbic system structure, which relays the info to both the emotion-oriented amygdala and the rational pre-frontal cortex. But the amygdala receives and processes the incoming information faster than the prefrontal cortex. When the amygdala is active and full of blood and oxygen, there is less activation in the prefrontal cortex. This delay allows us to react without consulting the rational prefrontal cortex.

The brain and body do not work in isolation. The brain takes in sensory information from the body—a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms—and its surroundings when it decides how to react. Adrenaline alone isn’t to blame for our outbursts; it works in concert with a slew of other hormones. When we get emotional they work together to make us more prone to say things we might not have if we were wrapping up a book club meeting rather than a football game.

So no, Sherman’s adrenaline wasn’t doing the “talking” that Sunday, but it wasn’t riding the bench either.

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