Friday, February 04, 2005

Remember "Fight or Flight?"

Imagine yourself living millenia ago. The world was far less safe to you than it is now. Replace our city streets with small paths running through the jungles or forests. Imagine miles and miles between safety. Imagine not being at the top of the food chain (that's a big one!). You are, literally, at the mercy of the elements! In some ways, it is amazing that our genes are even still around.

Through the process of natural selection, those capable of getting away, steering clear of danger (in other words, quick to feel danger and fear) survived to pass on their genes. Those more reckless or those unable to detect a threat no longer have genes to pass on. Those genes became extinct.

Now, in evolutionary terms, it has only been a blink-of-an-eye since then. While we have used our intellect to tame the wild, pushed back nature and its threat to the edge of town, we still live with those genes that were selected way back! In other words, we are wired to have a fear response.

Not only are we wired to have that response, it is a response that happens automatically. Remember that class when you heard how animals have a fight-or-flight response? That response is also a part of our make-up. Not only is it a part of our make-up, it still happens as automatically as it does for that animal.

For survival's sake, our bodies do not need for our minds to take the time to consider a risk analysis. It needs for our minds to go on automatic while our bodies get out of the way. Imagine again, being alive millenia ago. Imagine walking down that path we mentioned. Imagine seeing a shadow move across the path. Our body does not need for us to have this thought: "Hmmm, I wonder if that was a saber-tooth tiger? Or maybe it was just my imagination? Perhaps a bird flying by?" By this time, if it were a saber-tooth tiger, our questions would have ceased, and a very satisfied tiger would remain.

And if we determined that it was, indeed a tiger in time, our mind does not need for us to ask the question: "should I run away? Or perhaps I should climb that tree? Or maybe I can scare the tiger away?" Our body needs us not to think, but to act. And in order for it to act, our body goes on automatic. It responds in ways that are almost impossible (notice the "almost" part) to control.

We see the shadow, and our pulse quickens, our breathing becomes more rapid. Our stomach tenses, and our palms become sweaty. Perhaps we even feel our feet take on a life of their own: they want us to run, move, get clear of the danger!

Our brain and body need for this to happen nearly instantaneously. That is what is necessary to survive. So we perceive a threat, and we respond.

Now, fast-forward those millenia. There are no saber-tooth tigers. Rarely do we find ourselves below the top position on the food chain. And our threats have become much more difficult to ascertain. Who is the enemy? Is it that person around the corner? Is it the boss? Is it our spouse? We still feel that immediate and automatic response to a sense of threat, even if that threat turns out to be nothing more than someone who had a bad day, someone who is not a threat but a grouch!




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