Reptilian brain: Don't Snake it for Granted
Consider this – you are in the mountains hiking and you hear rustling from a nearby bush. Immediately your pupils dilate, your heart rate starts pounding quickly, and you narrow in on the image of a snake slithering out. Your body reacts by either running away, trying to fight the snake, or freezing to see if it retreats (the F3 response).
The F3 reactions to snakes and other threats allowed our ancestors to quickly react to life or death situations. Because snakes are good at camouflage, a sharp awareness of a snake’s presence was important for survival. It is so ingrained that you can simply be shown a picture of a snake and experience fear even if you’ve never seen a real snake. The F3 response is incredibly primitive, powerful, and basic to our survival. For hundreds of years scientists have been attempting to understand this response and try to tame it.
In 1872, Charles Darwin attempted a self-study to eliminate this innate fear of snakes. He went to the zoo regularly and stared at a poisonous viper called a puff adder behind glass. He vowed to himself he would not move or flinch when the snake tried to strike. Without fail, Darwin found himself recoiling every time the snake lunged at the glass even though in his conscious mind he knew the snake could not hurt him from behind the glass.
Darwin noted, “As soon as the blow was struck, my resolution went for nothing, and I jumped a yard or two backwards with astonishing rapidity.”
Despite trying to use his thinking brain to not recoil, his more powerful reptilian brain took over and he jumped back every time. Should Darwin have not been protected by a layer of glass, this instinct would have served him well. But even though he knew he was safe, no amount of his conscious thinking could override the F3 response in the moment. So, don’t feel bad when you get worked up over something scary or have a hard time controlling your fear – even Darwin couldn’t do it! If Darwin were alive today, he would no doubt be astonished by the recent advances in neuroscience that could alter the outcome of his experiment. We now know how to quickly calm the F3 response after it happens and it can be prevented in some situations using non-invasive technology. For more information, go here.