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92. Mountains and Molehills

The human brain is a startlingly wonderful thing, especially in its ability to create. It is also our downfall in that it is responsible for nearly all our suffering. Because, while it is capable of building cities and computers, and of keeping us safe by predicting every eventuality, it is also capable of turning every molehill into a mountain. This week's tip looks at what we might learn from creatures with much smaller brains .... 'If the grain were separated from the chaff..... what is truly valuable would be to what is useless in the proportion of a molehill to a mountain.' Edmund Burke, British Statesman and Philosopher. I was in the Algarve last week, and one morning the sun came out and I went for my favourite walk. It runs alongside a lake, a nature reserve, close to the sea. Cormorants, gulls and egret are common sights here, but what I saw that morning was unexpected. At the edge of the lake I noticed a small bricked-in area, creating in effect a small pond. In it I saw three turtles, one large and two small, suspended almost vertically in the water. Their limbs were waving as they treaded water, while their heads protruded just above the surface, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun. Entranced, I edged closer to get a better view, but the movement caught their attention and they were gone in a flash, diving deep into the cloudy depths of the water. Disheartened, I waited for a little while to see if they reappeared. Sure enough, after a minute or so one of babies resurfaced, poking the crown of his small head above the surface, once again, to catch the warmth of the sun. Now you may think it is sad to spoil this touching scene with science, but it occurred to me that what I had just witnessed was the reptilian brain in action. Always vigilant for the slightest sign of danger, it flashes its warning to its host and, in microseconds, the host responds. The first message is 'danger!' And the second message, hot on its heels, is 'scarper'. And so these turtles survive. But once the signals have settled and their body chemistry goes back to normal, these creatures are free to return to what they were doing. Until the next shadow or unexpected rustle occurs. What they don't do is build a story around the event. They did not, I feel sure, huddle in their family group and speculate as to what the danger was, or consider the likelihood of it recurring. They did not note that the intruder was white and female and that they must henceforth mistrust any creature of that description. They did not plan a strategy around avoiding it in the future, I don't suppose, or speculate as to what worthless turtles they must be to have attracted such unwelcome attention. Nor did they, one suspects, complain about how 'it's always us turtles that they pick on, it's so unfair!' You need a large cerebral cortex, such as the one humans possess, to be able to do all that. When we experience a frightening event, it is our very own reptilian brain that alerts us. But we rarely leave it at that. By the time we've chewed over it for an hour, or a day or two, we can have an elaborate theatrical production on our hands, complete with characters, script, plot, motive, props and stage directions. 'You'd better call the police,' your neighbours warn, 'and we all need to keep an keep an eye out for this woman.' 'And better put new locks on the door.' 'Don't go down to the pond again,' we tell the children. And all because a curious passerby stopped to look. What is so curious is that when an unusual event occurs we plan to heighten our vigilance, despite the fact that our reptilian brain is wired to be extremely sensitive, designed as it is for life in the jungle. Think about it, we wouldn't have to be on special alert, would we, to notice when we walked in our front door that there was someone in the hall we didn't know? This part of our brain is already far too sensitive and poorly discriminating for the purposes of modern life, it doesn't need need extra help! Try this: 1 Think of a recent experience that scared you. It might have been a stranger near your house, an unusual sound inside the house, finding a certain email in your inbox, a health alert, standing near the edge of a cliff, losing sight of one of your children when out shopping, someone not turning up when they should. 2. What actually happened? Eg I stood near the edge of a cliff and felt frightened. 3. What story did you add? Eg I thought I might throw myself off. I imagined falling through the air, the terror of it, and what it would be like to land on the rocks below. I imagined the ambulance arriving, my dead broken body. I went on to think about my poor children and how they would manage without me...... 4. How did all that make you feel? 5. What plans did you make as a result? Eg I will never walk near cliffs again. 6. Now imagine that experience again, without the story. What changes? What, as Edmund Burke would say, is the grain of value, and what is the chaff? Have an uncomplicated week! Anita