Tuesday, April 8, 2008

This is Your Brain on Fear

So I was walking my dogs in the woods the other day and it happened again. There was this long skinny curving line on the ground, and my rational brain said “That’s a root” and my animal brain screamed “SNAKE! SNAKE!”, and the animal brain won. I froze.

This happens to me all the time, which is dumb for three reasons. First, I KNOW it’s not a snake. Second, this is what I study and teach…the way we human animals perceive risk and how to communicate about risk better, so I should be able to overcome this apparent irrationality. And third, every time it happens I tell myself not to let it happen again…but it does. By the way, this DOESN’T happen to my dogs.

The good news is we understand pretty well how this works…how whenever we encounter something that could be hazardous, that information goes first to the part of the brain that sets off a fight or flight response just in case, and THEN it goes to the parts of the brain that can give it a little thought, and send back the message “You did it again you idiot.” By which time, I’ve already frozen.

It doesn’t matter what the potential threat is. It doesn’t matter whether we see it, smell it, hear it, touch it, taste it, or even if it’s just information assembled in our brain…a thought…or a memory. The same thing happens. The information goes to where we fear first, and to where we think, second.

And then, in the ensuing battle between rationality and gut instinct…guess what? Instinct usually wins, or at least it has the upper hand, again because of wiring in the brain.

So there I am on the trail. My dogs look at me to try to figure out why we’re stopping. I ignore this innocent interrogation and move on. And I am reminded once again that talking to people about risk a messy affair. Most risk communication just tries to find really clear ways to explain the facts, to educate. But if just learning the facts was enough, I wouldn’t be freezing when I saw a root on the ground in the woods. If just the facts were enough, we probably wouldn’t be as afraid as we all are about a lot of things…like terrorism (the fear of which helped launch a war) or nuclear power, or industrial chemicals…and we’d probably be more afraid of the things that are much more likely to kill us, like heart disease (it kills 2200 Americans every day), and stroke, and motor vehicle crashes and other accidents.

I find that if I want to help my friends make informed, healthy choices about the risks they face…well, yes, it might help to offer what few facts I can…but I also have to respect their fears, and not just say ”Here are the Facts. Calm Down”. I have to respectfully help them know that risk perception is a combination of facts AND feelings, and though both are valid, sometimes the feelings can lead to behaviors that actually increase the risk. Just knowing that challenges me to think about risks more thoroughly.

Unless, of course, it’s another root in the shadows at my feet. Maybe I should just let my dogs walk ahead of me.

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