I am still reading my new book, “Untangling the Mind: Why We Behave the Way We Do” by Theodore George, M.D.
From this you (or I) might assume I am not a very fast reader….since I first posted about this book a good two weeks ago.
But it is not reading that is the challenge here but rather comprehension. Two weeks ago I learned that I have not one but two survival instincts: survival and reward.
That took me until just about now to comprehend.
So last night I started reading again and discovered that my survival instinct is stronger and faster than I am (so is yours by the way).
This is fascinating. I have been searching for the answer to this question for years – is the “survival instinct” something a being can circumvent, turn off, or somehow fail to come pre-installed with? And if it does somehow get turned off or goes missing, can it be reactivated or reinstalled later on?
According to Darwin, it is not possible to circumvent the survival instinct. Also, everyone has it – so no worries about some beings not getting one when they first arrive.
In the book, Dr. George describes an experiment where Darwin went to the London Zoo and went into the snake exhibit. He selected a particularly poisonous specimen (puff adder in case you are wondering) and put his face up very close to the snake’s clear glass-encased enclosure. Then he proceeded to annoy the snake to the point where it would strike at him.
Darwin knew the thick glass stood in between him and the puff adder. He also knew no way could the snake bust through it to bite him in the face. But when the snake finally struck, Darwin jumped back so fast he literally didn’t have time to consider otherwise.
Dr. George explains why: Darwin reacted as he did because there are two pathways in the brain – the pathway to the amygdala, which is the central “threat processing unit” for the brain, and the pathway to the cortex, which is the central “thought processing unit” for the brain.
Simply put, the amygdala is faster. Much faster. The amygdala can bypass thought (if there is any) and it doesn’t need thought to initiate a decision to act.
According to Dr. George, we can, over time and with training, assert control over the amygdala in cases where repetitive noises, expressions or other potential “threat messages” are eventually deemed harmless, so our brain then begins to ignore them. However, because the survival instinct is just that – an instinct – we can’t turn it off or overpower it or out-think it or otherwise divest ourselves of it.
At least according to Darwin – and given his track record to date, I am inclined to trust him.
So for all these years when I have been wondering what I would do in this or that scenario, why some people recover from things like eating disorders and others seem to linger in a forever halfway-to-recovery state, whether I could get so “frozen” in fear that I would not be able to act on my own behalf (such as when encountering a venomous puff adder without a thick clear protective glass window in between us) – apparently, my amygdala already has a plan for that.
I would jump. Same as Darwin. Same as you. Same as everyone.
Today’s Takeaway: I have always been fascinated by the survival instinct – in people and animals – but only recently have I discovered interesting books and articles that help me to understand more about what it is and how it works in my own life. How much do you know about your own survival instinct? Can you tell when it is at work to help you avoid dangers and attract life-sustaining rewards? Do you trust it? Why or why not?
Bear fishing image available from Shutterstock.