James Thurber was known for his humorous but thoughtful comments and cartoons. September 11 made one of his comments especially relevant: “Don’t look back in anger, or forward in fear but rather around in awareness.”

When our brain senses that something important has occurred, it initiates a cognitive sequence in which emotional arousal activates attentional focus, which provides direction for our various critical thinking and problem-solving systems, which determine our behavioral response.

The noted emotion researcher, Antonio Damasio identified six primary (and principally negative) emotions, surprise, happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, and fear. The first five direct attention to the nature of what has occurred (the past), and the sixth to what might occur (the future). The September 11 attacks simultaneously activated all our primary emotions except happiness, and this helps to explain our nation’s powerful (albeit somewhat confused) emotional outburst. We were aroused, but didn’t immediately know where to focus our attention or how to proceed.

Our attention system focuses principally on high contrast information, and merely monitors or ignores steady states and gradual changes. Going outside on a cold day will immediately focus our attention on the sudden temperature change, but we’re less aware of the gradual temperature changes that occur later while we walk about in the cold. The September 11 attacks certainly produced a sudden major contrast that we collectively attended to, even though the news media had been regularly reporting the emerging geopolitical events that helped to spark the attacks. In typical human fashion, we waited for the explosion before we attended to the looming problem.

So we were highly aroused emotionally on September 11, and our attention was riveted on what had occurred. How should we respond?

Our brain has two separate problem-solving systems. (1) Serious challenges with a sense of immediacy are rapidly and reflexively processed by our brain’s innate stress-driven, conceptual problem-solving system. This system responds quickly on the basis of a small amount of emotionally intense information. It’s not interested in details. It’s thus quite vulnerable to making racist/sexist/elitist responses based on only a few highly visible emotion-charged elements— but it’s also capable of making impulsive altruistic responses. (2) Challenges without a sense of immediacy are processed more slowly and reflectively by our brain’s curiosity-driven, analytical problem-solving system (located principally in our frontal lobes).

We thus will respond reflexively to a car moving swiftly towards us (concerned only with its looming rapid approach), but we’ll generally respond reflectively to a car on a lot, if we’re considering its purchase (and are thus concerned with its service history, possible malfunctioning systems, cost, etc).

Our rapid reflexive system is the default system because it responds to dangers and opportunities that require an immediate decisive (fight/flight) response that will enhance survival. When it isn’t immediately obvious whether a reflexive or reflective response is the more appropriate, both systems simultaneously search for a solution, with the rapid reflexive system typically responding first.

Most of us thus go through life with a long string of regrets and apologies because of the late arrival of our brain’s (often better) reflective response. Since many problems humans now face don’t require an impulsively reflexive response, the challenge is to develop and use our reflective capabilities as much as possible.

As one would expect, the September 11 events sparked both positive and negative reflexive responses. For example, some folks immediately volunteered, contributed funds, and/or expressed empathy/grief/patriotism. Conversely, others harassed those who looked as if they were of Middle East origin or of the Muslim faith, or else sought scapegoats from within our own culture. Some sought refuge in their religion and others blamed religion. Some argued for immediate military retaliation, while others insisted on a peaceful resolution — even though it wasn’t yet clear to either group who the enemy was. We were thus a confused society — trying to gain rational control over our collective irrational emotion and attention systems. As I write this three weeks later, that rational process has now begun, and a measured reflective national response is emerging.

Reflective problem solving occurs principally in our frontal lobes, and I described Elkhonon Goldberg’s intriguing new theory of the function and organization of our frontal lobes in two recent columns. His theory and book now seem even more important for understanding what occurred in the September 11 attacks, and in our brains.

Thurber suggested that we shouldn’t look back in anger (the past) or forward in fear (the future) —neither of which solves the present problem. He suggested rather that we look around in (present) awareness — such as awareness of the current state of the issues that led to the explosion, awareness of the emergence of new kinds of national dangers, and awareness of our current individual and collective capability to design and effect a responsible response.

It takes time for a society of collaborating brains to get from arousal to focused attention to solution, but other seemingly shattering events in my lifetime give hope. We do tend to work it out, once we commit to a responsible solution.

I was a child during the early years of the economic Depression of the 1930’s, when things seemed hopeless. I was an adolescent during World War II, when things again seemed hopeless. I was an adult during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, when things again seemed hopeless. In these and other bleak times in our nation’s history, our collective resolve and capacity for reflective thought took us from a hopeless problem to a hopeful solution.

Our individual frontal lobe capabilities are truly remarkable, and the collective frontal lobes of a committed democratic society are even more remarkable —if we would but trust their leadership.