"I’ve experienced many terrible things in my life, a few of which actually happened."
– Mark Twain
A man driving his luxury car late at night becomes lost and slowly realizes that he is in a very bad part of town. When his car breaks down, the tension mounts. He is approached by a group of gang members, one of whom is brandishing a handgun. The tow truck he has called arrives, but as its driver confronts the gunman, the outcome is unclear.
This is the opening scene from the 1991 film “Grand Canyon.” It sticks in my mind more than a quarter century later because of the artful way it resonates with the wide-ranging fears that engulf us. Some of those cause the all-too-familiar knot in the stomach, while others we hardly notice.
If you’ve ever wondered why you’re afraid of so many things, don’t panic. We are all hard-wired for fear courtesy of a small portion of the brain known as the amygdala. Scientists blame this chunk of grey-matter for emotional responses like fear, anxiety and aggression. If you are a caveman who fears a rustle in the bushes that could be a sabretooth tiger, this is a good thing. When you are an office worker afraid to open an urgent email from your boss, not so much.
A popular metaphor for this emotional control center of the limbic system is “lizard brain”. If you are a lizard and survival is all that matters, this system is essential. There is no time to evaluate the threat, no opportunity to weigh your options. You must respond immediately to avoid ending up on the wrong end of the food chain.
These days our life-threatening predators are mostly under control. But while our environment has become less hostile, the evolution of the lizard brain has failed to keep up. Instead of helping like it was designed to do, it often hurts us instead.
The late Hans Rosling addressed some of the implications of this in his highly recommended bestseller, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things are Better Than You Think.
The unevolved lizard brain, Hans writes, causes us to pay attention to information that fits our dramatic fear instinct and ignore information that does not. It is for this reason that you will never hear “Topping tonight’s news, 102,465 airplanes landed today without incident.” Fears that once helped keep our ancestors alive – fears of physical harm, captivity, disease, poison – now serve mainly to keep journalists employed.
Today’s routine threats come not from wild beasts, but from stuff like freeway traffic, looming deadlines, overdue notices, or perhaps arguments with a colleague or spouse. Sometimes the amygdala really shifts into overdrive, firing nerve cells with reckless abandon. Our bloodstream is assaulted with adrenaline and cortisol, increasing our respiratory rate and shunting blood into our muscles. Sight sharpens, impulses quicken, and our perception of pain is dulled. In these moments, our rational mind is shut off to focus our energy on the defend/attack mode. The critical thinking necessary for solving tough problems is virtually impossible when we are consumed with fear. We may even start to anticipate threats that don’t exist.
In my forty-plus year career in engineering, I’ve been through plenty of layoff cycles. The lizard brain sees loss of a job as a palpable threat to survival and so awakens. The natural result is that every bit of incoming information – being left off an email distribution, an awkward exchange with the boss, getting passed over for a promotion – gets adapted to fortify the perceived threat. In the meantime, not much work gets done.
The kind of safety that the lizard brain evolved to provide is predominantly physical, but we also need emotional and spiritual safety to thrive. Not only must we avoid hostile environments, we also require caring friends and a sense of purpose.
The fears we are barely aware of can also hold us back. Fear of public exposure, of failing, of making a bad choice, of being judged, of not being good enough – the lizard brain dutifully amplifies them all. One of the worst is the fear of the unknown – a fear that kicks in when we want to create something new or try something different. Ever come up with a creative new idea at work, summarize it in an email to your colleagues, and then hesitate before hitting Enter? The lizard brain tingles with the possibility that there may be danger lurking out there in the cube farm.
Fear is a story we create about what might happen to us, a compelling tale driven by carefully selected facts that match the narrative of personal well-being. The lizard brain always errs on the side of over-estimating danger; those that don't are quickly removed from the gene pool (or perhaps the workforce). When focused thinking is desperately needed, the lizard brain can seem like an annoyance, but as Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón advises "Don't be afraid of being scared. To be afraid is a sign of common sense. Only complete idiots are not afraid of anything."
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to LoveMyTool, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.