Cognitive paralysis in an emergency: the role of the supervisory attentional system

John Leach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many witnesses attest that victims of a disaster often perish because they ‘freeze’ in the face of danger. It has been proposed that this cognitive paralysis occurs due to temporal and cognitive constraints on survival response times while leaving open the question of which cognitive component is implicated in this behavior. This paper proposes, firstly, that the temporal constraints which occur during an emergency inhibit the functioning of the supervisory attentional system (SAS), which leads to the victim showing: 1) an appropriate response, if trained; 2) stereotypical or otherwise irrational behavior, if untrained; or 3) cognitive paralysis. Secondly, that the main role of the SAS is to operate as a temporal buffer, enabling a survival response to be prepared prior to facing a life-threatening event and not as a real-time immediate responder. It is argued that the initial cognitive paralysis differs at the cognitive and neurological levels from the more prolonged hypoactive behavior commonly seen in victims rescued from disasters and which is considered to be a form of disassociative reaction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)134-136
JournalAviation Space and Environmental Medicine
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2005


  • survival psychology
  • cognitive paralysis
  • supervisory attentional system


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