Friday, November 1, 2013

Where hormones rule - Part 1: The Old Times

It’s 11’o clock in the night and you are watching Crime Patrol on Television. A particularly gruesome crime is going to take place. You see a man wielding a threatening axe in hand. In a few seconds the axe is going to wreak havoc on the neck of a perfectly innocent family man.
As you watch this, your pupils grow bigger, your blood pressure rises, breath quickens, heart beats faster, a tightness comes in your muscles, blood gets diverted away from your stomach – giving you the butterflies. If someone is watching you now, you are the picture of a person facing danger. You can pounce any time, or run away, as the danger may be.
If you are looking at yourself somehow, you will say – relax, this is just a television show. No one is going to attack you. But the funny part is, you are not even aware of these changes. It is as if your mind and body are on an autopilot.
Before we start understanding why this happens, let me show you a small bit of our history. I will draw a timeline:
- Women started working in factories and offices – Less than 100 years ago
- Men started working in factories and offices – Less than 500 years ago
- Men started working on farms, women cook and take care of children – 7000 years ago
- Men hunt and women take care of children – since more than 1 lac years ago
As you can see, our history is made up of men hunting and women tending to children. There was hardly any cooking. There were no fixed houses, no villages and cities. We were all wandering tribes. Our bodies and minds are shaped in these conditions. Scientists call this as ‘Ancestral Environment’. Let’s us call it, simply, ‘Old Times’.
While trying to understand ourselves and others, the biggest mistake we can do is to think in light of today’s conditions. Our brains are made in Old Times. So when you fight with our office colleague today, your brain thinks of him as a member of another tribe. When you watch terrible crimes or sensational news on television, your brain takes it as an actual danger, not just a moving image.
Well, there is a part of mind that can think and understand this. This is why one part of you is definitely aware that it’s just an office colleague. But there is another part of mind, that is hidden. It is this part that controls the emotions, feelings and bodily reactions. This part is far more powerful than the thinking one. And it was shaped in the Old Times.
In the Old Times, there were very few things that mattered for survival. Danger from enemy like predator or other humans, opportunity to get food, opportunity to find mates and protecting children. Any man or woman who could do these things well, survived. There were no projects to be planned or diplomatic emails to be written.
These critical situations had to be identified quickly. There was no chance of second thought. Imagine one of our ancient forefather standing in the wild. There is a rustle in the leaves. He has to choice but to conclude quickly that it’s a poisonous snake. Thus the brain learned to detect all important situations fast, even if wrongly sometimes.
Now let’s get back to you watching Crime Patrol. Brain detects danger as per Old Times. Facing danger needs speed, strength and alertness. Brain prepares the body accordingly. The pupils dilate to take more light in. The body needs more oxygen, so the breath quickens. Muscles like legs, arms and organs like heart, lungs get more blood. Unknowingly, you become like your ancestor who has just detected a snake in the leaves.
Can you spot successful people in the Diwali shopping crowd? They will be walking straight, heads high, speaking loudly and aggressively. We have taken the first step in understanding them. We have learned that our mind was shaped in Old Times. We need to know a few more interesting facts. This is where the hormones come in. But that has to wait for Part 2.

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