An absolutely stunning article about the biological response of fear humans can have, when confronted with extremely threatening situations. In this case, a 25-year old woman gets attacked by a mountain lion in Colorado. The article works in detail through the experience, both the narrative of being attacked by the predator, as well as the instinctive reactions and emotions of the woman, and the biological impulses behind that.
Basically, in situations like these, you turn into a robot. Freezing, fleeing, surrendering, fighting, these are all reactions determined by the workings of your brain, which in situations of danger goes in overdrive, taking you over. It turns out, moreover, that instead of “fight or flight”, people experience four stages: freeze, fright, flight and fight.
Well, just read it, as its a very intense story as well. I’ve excerpted a number of highlights.
In the throes of intense fear, we suddenly find ourselves operating in a different and unexpected way. The psychological tools that we normally use to navigate the world—reasoning and planning before we act—get progressively shut down. In the grip of the brain’s subconscious fear centers, we behave in ways that to our rational mind seem nonsensical or worse. We might respond automatically, with preprogrammed motor routines, or simply melt down. We lose control.
When the danger is far away, or at least not immediately imminent, the instinct is to freeze. When danger is approaching, the impulse is to run away. When escape is impossible, the response is to fight back. And when struggling is futile, the animal will become immobilized in the grip of fright. Although it doesn’t slide quite as smoothly off the tongue, a more accurate description than “fight or flight” would be “fight, freeze, flight, or fright”—or, for short, “the four fs.”
On a winter morning a few years back, a young woman named Sue Yellowtail went through them all in about 10 minutes.
At the top of the bank, not 30 feet away, stood a mountain lion. Tawny against the brown leaves of the riverbank brush, the animal was almost perfectly camouflaged. It stared down at her, motionless.She stood stock-still.
Yellowtail had entered the first instinctual fear-response state, the condition of freezing known as attentive immobility. Even before she was aware of danger, subconscious regions of her brain were assessing the threat. Cued to the presence of a novel stimulus, the brain deployed the orienting reflex, a cousin of the startle reflex. Within milliseconds Yellowtail’s heart rate and breathing slowed. A brain region called the superior colliculus turned her head and slewed her eyes so that the densest part of the retina, the fovea, formed a detailed image of the cat. The visual information then flowed via the thalamus to the visual cortex and the amygdala, the key brain center for evaluating threat. Her pattern-recognition system found a match in the flow of sensory information. It recognized a pair of eyes, then the outline of a feline head. In less than half a second, before her cortex even had time to complete the match and recognize what she was seeing, her emotional circuitry had already assessed the situation: It was bad. Subconsciously, her brain also determined that the threat was not immediately pressing, and so a region called the ventral column of the periaqueductal gray (PAG) triggered attentive immobility. This is generally considered the first stage of the fear response, because it tends to occur when the threat is far away or not yet aware of the subject’s presence. The goal is to keep it that way.
The mountain lion was close now, near enough to pounce. As she splashed once more across the stream, the need to run surged over her like a shiver. She bolted, splashing madly through the shallow water, her legs churning over the rough, slippery cobbles of the streambed.
She ran with everything she had.
Yellowtail was now in the grip of the second phase of the fear response, flight. The sudden movement of the mountain lion had broken the spell of her attentive immobility and gotten her moving, but while the animal was still a fair distance off she had managed to keep her wits and suppress her fear centers’ automatic panic reaction. But as the cat drew closer, reason and willpower wavered as the fear grew stronger. At last they gave way altogether.
She remembers feeling the warmth of the animal’s mouth on her head. She remembers looking up toward the surface through her sunglasses and thinking, with a perplexing degree of calm: “When your time’s up, your time’s up.”
Yellowtail had entered a third phase of the fear response, a state known as tonic immobility, or quiescence—in lay terms, playing possum. When an animal is seized by an attacker, the caudal ventrolateral region of the PAG generates a response that from the outside looks like total collapse. In the teeth of a full-blown sympathetic response, the parasympathetic system now swings into overdrive. The body, insensitive to pain, goes completely limp, often falling to the ground as awkwardly as rag doll, limbs splayed, head thrown back. Eyes closed, it trembles, defecates, and lies still. It looks, in a word, dead.
Her next thought was to stab it in the eye with the hemostat. “It just dawned on me: ‘I’ve got to get to the brain,’ so the eye was the best bet.” Without thinking twice, she clutched the hemostat and stabbed it over and over again into the cat’s left eye. The beast screamed a horrifying yowl. She kept stabbing.
Yellowtail had worked her way through to the last of the four fs, the fight, or aggressive defense, response. Like quiescence, aggressive defense is a tactic of last resort. People in the throes of full sympathetic overdrive are capable of totally uninhibited, blind violence. They will use any weapon and inflict any injury they can. On the battlefield this impulse may be useful in the heat of fighting, but it can also lead to reckless, even mindless, behavior.