Welcome to the second installment of Misconnections. In the previous article, we discussed Connection Illusions – connections where none really exists. In this article, we continue to look as incorrect connections the mind makes. This time we focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the connections our survival instincts make.
Most dictionaries define survival instincts as knowing what to do in a dangerous situation. In our definition, survival instincts are the ability to quickly identify and react to dangerous situations. The survival equation often leaves out the identification of danger. Some people mention it and refer to it as danger intuition. However, often discussion of survival instincts focuses on fight or flight after fear is felt.
The reality is that identification of danger is the first step in ensuring survival. Some of the things that present danger are learned. Parents tell you not to touch the fire, to stay away from cliffs, and not to approach wild animals. Yet, presented with a new situation, humans instantaneously decide if the situation is dangerous or not.
Humans make these decisions based on past experiences during the person’s life and on things that kick in instinctively. Looking back in time, if a person had eaten strawberries previously and they caused them no harm, they assumed strawberries were safe when they encounter them again. Likewise, if they knew a person was of their village, they felt safe as they approached.
On the flip side, if a person knew some berries had made themselves or others sick, they would react with caution when the saw similar berries. Likewise, they would run back to their home village if they encountered someone unfamiliar. That person might be a friend or a foe. Survival instincts told them to flee because waiting to find out if the person friendly could be deadly.
Over time, people became very efficient at looking for things that were out of place, were different, or were associated with previously identified threats. Thus, snap decisions were made about whether a food, place, or person was safe.
The mind, however, does not know the difference between a real danger and something that is simply meets the criteria of potential danger. Thus, it assumes that anything that meets the criteria for possibly being dangerous is dangerous.
The Danger Connection
This results in a connection in the mind between this new thing and danger even if it is not in fact a danger. Thus, a tasty non-poisonous berry may become identified as a danger in people’s mind. Likewise, a person from outside the neighborhood may be seen as a danger simply because they don’t appear to belong. Most generally, this isn’t the case. However, there remains some validity to the phrase “stranger danger” that we teach children.
It would be more accurate if the human mind categorized things in three categories: known to be safe, known to be a danger, and unknown. However, for safety and survival, people with well-developed survival instincts will see things as safe or danger. Their minds define safe things with an abundance of caution.
Not all people have the same level of survival instincts or intuition about danger. In some cases, the person’s mind will respond with the assumption of safety over danger. In this case, the person assumes that the berry or the stranger is safe by default.
Which is Best?
We could debate the value of strong danger intuition and survival instincts as opposed to a mind that believes more strongly that the unknowns are safe. The fact is that both of these perspectives result in misconnections. In one case, connections are made between people, places, and things and danger when that is not always true. Meanwhile, in the other case, the connection is made to the person, place, or thing being safe when there are situations where that is not true.
Thus, no matter whether a person has a tendency to assume things that are unknown are danger or a tendency to assume things that are unknown are safe, they will be right in some cases and wrong in others. This leads to misconnections that become a part of the history that the brain uses to analyze new “threats.” Thus, continuing to compound the problem.
In the next installment of Misconnected, we will discuss how our beliefs, culture, and environment create misconnections.