Posts Tagged ‘fight or flight’

SERMON: “The Brain: A User’s Guide — Abridged” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 20th, 2012


Keeping us from stepping on a rattlesnake.

Getting us to throw up when we see someone else do it.

Thinking about sex.

These are survival responses: fight or flight; mirror neurons that pay detailed attention to what those close to us are feeling, experiencing, or seeing, and; reproducing to ensure the continuation of the species.

What our brains are not good at:

Critically examining things we hear from others.

Perceiving reality without a thick filter of magical belief.

Not being fearful.

Our brains are physical machines that have evolved with us over millions of years.  They exist because they are good at keeping us alive and fruitful.  We exist because they work as well as they do.

When we started using tools to aid our survival (around 6 million years ago), we were on our way toward becoming the dominant life form on the planet that we are today.  Our advancement, however, was slow.  But over time our cleverness led us to things like fire and cooked food (which fed our growing brains while reducing the need for our huge ape-like chewing muscles, which then allowed our brain cases to expand to the limits finally imposed on them by natural selection — namely the width of the human female’s pelvis).

We are the tool-making ape, and because of the protections we have built for ourselves from the forces of nature (extreme heat, cold and disease), and our ability to alter the environments we live in (as well as the plants and animals we live with), we have spread out and flourished.  In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.

This is no small success.  But we are mistaken to lean as much as we do on the idea that our brains are more than our most advanced sensory organ — that our minds are something that transcends the physical world.  They don’t.

As I sat on a park bench today, watching a pair of grackles chase a squirrel from the lawn beneath “their” tree, and then return to their mix of mating and feeding behavior, I was reminded that, if you get right down to it, the “purpose” of life is to continue to live.  Life, by any definition, is a complex process that exists only by dint of its ability to feed itself and reproduce.  Even the most mindless of life is propelled by this innate impulse.  And we humans are no different.

But, of course, we are very different when it comes to cognition. All animals have brains, some small, some large.  And some of those animals are eerily similar to us in having a social sense and an emotional interior life.  Some even make simple tools.  But none have the self-awareness that we humans do, and I think that gives us a very singular set of existential problems to deal with.

We humans have huge brains. Okay, maybe not quite THIS huge!

In particular is the question of “why us?”  Our attempts to answer that existential question have created thousands of gods, thousands of religions to go with those gods, and creation myths aplenty — all of them stories with us at the center, revealing some satisfying aspect of our “true” purpose here on Earth.

Of course one of the problems with that approach is that we are not divine in origin (at least as far as we can tell), nor are we “intelligently designed”.  What we are is  “naturally selected” (a process that can bring about results that easily mimic what we might consider “design”).  And what we generally end up with, then, is a lofty narrative of our special creation draped over the pulsing drive of the survival-insuring primitive animal brain.  This is a recipe for conflict and cognitive dissonance on a fairly grand scale!

The fact that we are living in an age of technology and science lends support to our already-elevated view of our brain’s “designed” perfection.  Therefore we consistently overestimate the power of the human brain — to the point that many believe that with the right amount of practice, we can project ourselves across the universe, read other minds or predict the future.  At the same time we under-estimate some of the real powers of the brain: such as our natural animal wariness that can create debilitating fears, irrational thoughts and faulty perception.  Both are problematic.

The predicament that we are in is this: we are alive, we are conscious, and the only organ we have for navigating that rather stunning state of existence is a multi-layered, quirky sensory organ that retains its most primitive life-preserving functions even as it serves as the source of our most lofty, artistic and humane expressions.  Darwin wasn’t just whistling “Dixie” when he said that “…man with all his noble qualities …still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. ”  We do.  Oh, indeed, we do.

The truth is that we humans can seem to be rational only as a sort of last resort.  As I observe the battle lines of ideological debate in our current Presidential campaign, I am mostly struck by how many people are willing to take, at face value, almost any falsehood as long as it promises to support their belief-dependent view of reality.  If I could put one idea into the brains of all of my fellow citizens, it would be to embrace the true challenge that ownership of an evolved conscious mind entails, and learn to use our brains as effectively as possible (which has to include an awareness of the many quirks, biases and sensory mistakes that it is subject to).

It is a paradoxical challenge, this: using one part of our brain to figure out where the other parts of that same brain might be leading us astray.  But this is our reality: everything about our consciousness is playing out within the confines of our physical bodies.  (Though little wonder — since it can feel at times like there’s more than one person inside our head — so many of us are willing to imagine the different parts of our own consciousness as external beings, be they demons, spirits or angels).

Our brains may not be perfect, but they are certainly remarkable.  We just have to remember that they can rule us (fear) as much as we rule them (reason).  The best we can do is come to an understanding — an alliance, if you will — with the several aspects of our brain, and recognize the reality of what is happening inside our skulls.

t.n.s.r. bob

[CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION: My statement “In just the last 15,000 years we went from a small bunch migrating out of Africa to the global population of modern humans we are now.” is incorrect in that modern humans had already occupied regions of the Middle East and Central Europe before this time, but our global expansion has occurred within the last 15,000 years.  — t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

“Human Memory and the Blind Librarian that Runs it”  That could be the title of the book we may well end up writing one day about how memory — that vaunted aspect of the human brain — works.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781. Photograph: Public Domain

It’s disturbing enough to believe that there are goblins and malevolent spirits at loose in the world trying to trip you up.  But it is hardly less disturbing to realize that the part of our brain that manages memory is somewhere below the Blind Mole Rat on the evolutionary scale of intelligence, and is therefore not doing the bang-up job we imagine that it is.

One thing is obvious: the thing that lives in my brain and pulls from the shelf any and all of the stored snippets of experience that it “thinks” might be useful to me in whatever current drama I am engaged is nothing at all like a little person.  It is nothing like a conscious personality (or “mini-me”) with whom I am really communicating in the same way that I might talk to the help desk on the other end of my telephone call.  My little mental librarian is more like a reflex — capable of lightning quick response speeds that leave it, frankly, no time for the thoughtful reflections of a true librarian.

Though I’ve tried it many times, there is really no way of talking with this librarian of memory.  And yet we are in communication.  But I don’t know what form of communication happens at this level of the brain.  The evolution of my biology has  clearly developed a means of creating differentiated signals that can be “understood” deep in the mind’s archives.  It may well be electrical, but it could be chemical as well, or both (I am ignorant of the current level of understanding neuroscience currently has on this subject).  But whatever it is, in practical terms, the form of communication that exists between my conscious mind and my memory is damn imprecise and not always useful.  In fact, I’d go on to say that it can, at times, be less of a help and more of a hindrance to an enjoyable experience of conscious life.

I think I am so smart, when all along I’ve had this primitive, reactive, mad assistant lodged deep in my skull who has clearly evolved for speed over accuracy.  And why not?  It’s not like memory evolved for the purposes of adding richness to my experience of living.  It clearly began as something else.  This sort of ready storehouse of past experience is most likely the source of our ability to flick into fight or flight in an instant (and by instant I mean even before my conscious mind is aware of the fact that my body has decided to get the hell away from whatever trouble is in front of me).  And as we know, those that experience a few (or many) “false positives” may have run away unnecessarily, but run away they did, which means they survived the one time in a hundred when they really did need to run away.

But where does that leave me: a modern human who can go through days and months without facing a truly life-threatening situation?  I am a civilized man, trying to go about my business of driving, working, meeting other humans, socializing with a close friend, thinking that I am this wonderful bloke with a clever and refined mind only to find that I can be totally taken over by obsessive thoughts that trigger strong chemical reactions of fear or discomfort, all caused by my little blind librarian with whom I find no common language with which to communicate.

I think this is another one of those uncomfortable realities that science brings us face-to-face with: just about all of that which constitutes “me” and “my life” are unintentional by-products of my evolutionary biology.  That is the stark truth of our physical reality.

But that is not the end of the story, nor, in truth, the only story.  For our consciousness, and the way we engage life and infuse it with meaning and significance, color it with our pleasure, sweeten it with our love and with our art, is as much the story of our “life” as our biology.

But the one need not be sacrificed for the other.  In other words, the richness of life is not diminished by a recognition that it came about by a bewildering series of accidents and mutations over a nearly incomprehensible stretch of time.  But neither is it really enriched by denial of our biological, evolutionary reality.  In short: we make too much of ourselves when we demand to have been specially created by an omnipotent, omniscient being…and too little.

We are special enough as it is.  We don’t need the spiritual filigree.  On the other hand, recognizing our biological limitations, especially regarding our own brains, can actually offer us a bit of comfort and self-understanding that may, in the end, make that blind librarian resident in our skulls a bit easier to live with.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “My Three Brains” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

How can something that is not “real” have “real” consequences?

The brain takes in perceptual data and works like the dickens to make sense of it.  As Gary Marcus points out (in Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind — reviewed this blog) the brain works in a contextual framework — meaning that it pulls from past experience any potentially applicable memory to match up with new stimuli.  The results can be amazing, tragic, generally helpful or humorous.  That this “system” works as well as it does may be more a testament to its sheer computing power than its perfection: our brains most assuredly are not perfect, but they are big.  And they are fast!  (How fast?  Read “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell, reviewed this blog).

So what about the times when the brain gets it wrong?  By the time our firing synapses return a faulty “mental Google” search from the dusty shelves of memory, our brain has already initiated the creation of a chemical response to the situation it thinks we are in (again — see “Blink”).  For those of us with “anxious” brains, this usually means a sudden fear response: a chemical climate for fight or flight.  So although the mental perception is false, the physical response is none-the-less real.  With the result that we can easily perceive a non-threatening situation as threatening (or fill in your favorite response here) aided by the evidence of our body chemistry, which is pretty damn hard to ignore.  (As Joni Mitchell sings: “It’s hard to tell, when you’re in the spell, if it’s wrong or if it’s real.”)  This, in short, is how we make ourselves crazy: this is where we get the idea that we create our own reality.

Yes, we humans have huge brains!

This is what we deal with by having the brains we have.  We are completely capable of reacting — or more to the point, over-reacting — on a regular basis.  We now know why this happens:  We are still animals at our core, with a more recent, rational mind layered on top.

We are like a mental three-layered cake, and when our finely-tuned senses make that snap decision that the chips are, indeed, down, the animal takes over and the rational brain is bound, gagged, blindfolded and taken along for the ride.  Only in the safety and calming that follows can we analyze what just happened and figure out whether we were right to run.

The survival implications for the persistence of such an extreme fear reaction are obvious: the ones who run with a few false positives survive — the more thoughtful who linger just once too often, don’t.

But the implications for our modern life are enormous:  in short, we are not well adapted to the safe, comfortable lives we actually lead.  We are anxious and ready to defend ourselves in a world where that magnitude of response is rarely truly called for (unless you have a pride of saber tooth cats living in your garden).

Road rage, domestic violence, mental anguish, panic attacks.  If we added up all of these emotional/psychological events and measured the proportionality of the response to the actual (physical) threat to our life that each triggering event represented, do you think we would see anything resembling an equal scale of input to response?  Of course not.  We all know this.  We understand it.  But we are nevertheless subject to the continued discomfort of what we’ve now labelled as stress, anxiety and a portion of our mental disorders.

It’s a challenge — one of the many of living with the quirky brains we actually have (as opposed to the perfect brains we’d like to think we have).  I heard Garrision Keillor once quip that “There’s no “off” switch for genius”.  True, that.  But there is also no “off” switch for our brains: even while asleep, they are churning away.

So there are reasons that our neurosis are so damn tenacious.  But external reality is not always one of them.  It is more often our perception of the world, and recognizing that we are animals bred for wariness can’t help but give us that much more leverage when it comes to calming ourselves enough to enjoy these rather remarkable lives of relative luxury and ease that we now live.

Civilization has been the means of our move away from individual violence (which, contrary to popular perception, is historically much lower than it was in our past).  As we have domesticated ourselves, we have learned to extend trust to strangers, and that trust has allowed us to create the wealth, safety and ease we now experience.

But our brains have millions of years of experience being wary.  It turns out to be our natural state (in fact, the chemicals of love and bonding work by suppressing our natural wariness of strangers).  Perhaps it is the counter-force to our propensity for belief in the irrational (which is likely merely an by-product of our social natures that make us want to believe anything a trusted person tells us).

So even though you and I live mostly free of the threat of real violence, we have television, the internet and popular entertainment that trade in murder and mayhem as if it were the air we breathe.  It may turn out to be that — in some fundamental way — we don’t really ever want to let our guard down, no matter how cozy our living room, plush our recliner, or seemingly content our pet cat.

Maybe our ice-age brains are still not quite convinced that the world has changed.  You and I may be modern people living in a globalized world, but the deeper parts of our brains have seen the ice sheets come, or the crops fail, or a war overtake the land.  And that ice-age human brain lives alongside the modern and the ancient lizard in our crowded skulls.

All three of our brains working together, trying to figure out what’s really going on.

t.n.s.r. bob