Survival Instincts

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.

 

Survival Instincts

 

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.

 

Danger

 

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.

 

Perceived Danger

 

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.

connection illusion

Humans initially made connections between people, places, things, and events as a matter of survival. Over time those connections have helped people to not only survive, but also thrive. However, not all connections are accurate.  Once these incorrect connections have been made, they are often difficult to change. In the first article of our series on Misconnections, we will explore The Connection Illusion.

 

The Misconnection

 

Since humans make millions of connections per day, inaccurate associations are inevitable. Those mistaken connections occur for various reasons. Some of them occur because survival instincts kick in. Other times, we make misconnections because of previous misconceptions or instilled beliefs. Meanwhile, other mistakes occur because of the illusions that two or more things are connected when in reality they are not.

 

This series explores each of these types of misconnections. It also explores how these misconnections are reinforced. The series will conclude with a look at how we can retrain our brain to make better, more accurate connections.

 

The Illusion

 

We are all familiar with illusions that a magician performs on stage. Magicians use techniques to distract the the audience. While the audience is paying attention to one thing, the magician performs tthe movement necessary to complete the trick.

 

Connection illusions work in a similar way. Emotion or physical reaction distracts the mind and suddenly a new connection is made where none actually exists.

 

No More Cake

 

A connection illusion sometimes occurs when a person catches a stomach bug. Often when this occurs, the last things the person ate before becoming ill no longer appeals to the person. So, if the person ate carrot cake before coming down with the virus, they may no longer desire to it eat. Even if carrot cake was previously their favorite, they may turn up their nose at it for weeks, months, or even years.

 

The carrot cake did not make the person sick. Perhaps the whole family got sick.  And, no one else ate carrot cake. The person’s logical mind knows the cake is not at fault. However, they made a connection between cake and feeling unwell. Once made, the person may need to put in a good deal of time and effort to break this connection.

 

London No More

 

Some connections based on illusions are even more indirect. In these cases, a person’s mind creates a connection between two events that happen concurrently although there is no direct relationship between the events.

 

For instance, if a person is on a trip to London when their grandmother dies. That person may associate sadness with London and not desire to go there again. Some might even have a belief that if they go there someone will die. Others can covert this to a connection that travel has negative consequences. This may sound ridiculous and for some people, they would not make this connection. However, they may make misconnections in a different circumstance.

 

Don’t Mess With My Ritual

 

Misconnections can drive people to have rituals and beliefs that have no scientific foundation or logical basis. For instance, athletes are known for their pre-competition rituals. Many athletes must eat particular things at particular times, listen to particular music, wear a certain pair of socks, etc. Although some foods or the right mindset can enhance performance, often these rituals seem absurd to the outsider.

 

The TV show Reba demonstrated this phenomenon in an episode where she held the team dinner at her house. There was an entire set of rules of how the dinner was to be held, including the specific brand of potato salad to purchase. Inadvertently, the wrong brand was purchased and everything was fine until the team found out. The team then became convinced that they would lose. Reba arrives at half-time and saves the day by bringing the right brand of potato salad or so the team believes. In actuality she simply changed the label on the container to make them believe it was the “winning” brand.

 

Although this episode of Reba is a comic dramatization of the importance of rituals on the mind, a person can definitely believe consciously and unconsciously that they are doomed to lose if their ritual is not followed.

 

Results of Connection Illusions

 

Connection illusions can result in many rituals, phobias, and biases. In situations where there is some level of connection, the illusion is often of a much greater connection than actually exists.

 

Up next: Survival Instincts and Misconnections