Reflection 16: Fight or Flight

October 31, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Humans may sometimes act like pigeons, rats, or monkeys, but those are different species altogether. Our brains offer far more behavioral options than theirs. Lab animals may have written the book on fear responses such as freezing, fleeing, or fighting, but we have interleaved many chapters of our own. Our amygdalae (singular amygdala) are parts of the brain that translate fear into recommendations for action. The word comes from Greek amugdale, almond, because that’s what these brain nuclei looked like to early anatomists. Our amygdalae still come into play when we are under stress, but we are no longer limited to fleeing, fighting, or freezing.


Humans have a huge repertoire of tactics for coping with the myriad gradations of fear. Some of us may freeze, fight, or flee on occasion, but, too, we may hum, carry on, bluff, inquire, investigate, seek help, or design and execute a solution that will lessen the tension. We convert the threatening situation into a problem, and then set out to solve it. Our amygdalae have learned a thing or two since we were in our primate infancy as treeshrews, now viewed in hindsight as true founders of all primates, great apes, and humans.


Over the intervening millions of years, the pathways between our sensory areas and amygdalae have expanded into intervening cerebral cortices, which vastly increase our options both for defining problems and proposing appropriate responses to them. We have evolved into pigeons, rats, and monkeys with advanced degrees in both memory and consciousness. The result is that highly processed sensory signals from the prefrontal cortex feed into the amygdala, allowing judgment to shape our emotional responses in frightening situations. 


Our hippocampi (singular, hippocampus, from Greek hippokampos, sea horse, which it is said to resemble), are brain areas sited beneath the amygdalae. They are essential in formation and retrieval of memories involving strong emotions, and feed into several amygdalae nuclei, providing signals relating to situations in which fear is aroused.


I have a well developed fear of high places having no visible means of support. Mountain trails are OK because they are solid. I trust granite. But when there is air between me and the ground, my amygdalae tell me to get out of there a.s.a.p. And my hippocampi make sure I remember the outcome as a warning the next time.


Someone tells me how great the Top of the Sixes is, the bar and restaurant in the penthouse at 666 5th Avenue. Stupidly, I decide to check it out. The elevator is OK because I can’t see down. Some 480 feet up, the doors open onto a bar on the right and floor-to-ceiling windows straight ahead. I stride manfully to the windows, glance down 41 floors toward the street, turn, walk back to the elevator, ride down, and that was my trip to Top of the Sixes. Immediate retreat was my only option. But I could see how the bar might sell a lot of martinis to people like me. Lighthouses have the same effect, especially the ones with open grilles or holes in the steps so you can see all the way down. Maine has some great lighthouses, but I’ve never made it up one of them yet. Jet airplanes, of course, terrify me. I remember one turbulent flight over Montana in the 1950s when the plane rose and fell precipitously for half an hour or so. Worst 30 minutes of my life. For some reason, small, single-engine planes don’t bother me. I like riding the wind, as if it were holding me aloft on great wings, like an eagle or hawk. My strongest and most painful memory is taking the elevator up through the arch of the Gateway to the West in St. Louis. In my book the arch was built to smear the reputation of Lewis and Clark. It is run by the National Park Service, which led me to trust it against my better judgment. The elevator is a train of little spherical cars hitched together, so I’m crammed into a hot, airless globe with five sweaty strangers who are probably just as scared as I am. The ride starts underground, and goes up slowly, slowly, creaking all the way. I could picture my progress with X-ray vision through the arch as if I were outside looking in. There’s Steve, the idiot, trapped in his death bubble. After five days—or was it years?—we make it to the top of the arch. The floor curves upward, and has windows on either side. Tricky windows because they are set at an angle so you can look straight down. I go to the center of the arch, take one look down—into emptiness, then a pavement of red bricks—and back to the death cars on bent knees. I get in and wait. And wait. And . . . it takes forever to fill up so we can beam down to Earth. No beam here, just a slow, wobbly descent into hell. If I was in charge of the CIA and wanted to torture terrorists, I would replace Gitmo with Gatemo, and get every one of them to squeal on his best buddies.


As far as I am concerned, my hippocampi have done me a service in preserving these edifying moments of truth. In lesser matters, my prefrontal cortices give me more options so I can engineer devilishly clever solutions, but when life-saving measures have to be taken fast, I look to my amygdalae, and so far they haven’t betrayed my trust.


What surprises me, though, is how many people seek out stressful situations to put a little excitement in their lives. Without terrifying TV shows and movies, I doubt there’d be much of an “entertainment” industry at all. Stephen King, like Edgar Allen Poe, has made a good living off his amygdalae and those of his readers.


All evidence shows that fear plays a major role in human consciousness. Today is Halloween with its gruesome, grisly ghouls, ghosts, goblins, witches, haunts, skeletons, and the rest of that spooky ilk. My suspicion is that modern life tends to be boring for amygdalae that evolved to provide a quick jolt of action in life-threatening situations. Many of us live too far back from the edge to fully employ the defenses we were born with, so we seek out danger (as long as we know in the heart of our hearts it’s only a game). Still, as with treeshrews, our amygdalae are at the core of our consciousness. The proof is in our survival against all odds to this day.




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