Normalizing Adaptation Defense

Recently, Carol and I discussed “adaptation” after hearing a report on National Public Radio (NPR) concerning elderly people with dementia. I asked her, “Would I recognize that I had dementia if I had it? What if I’m living in a dementia right now? How would I know?” I certainly have plenty of delusions that might or could fit the diagnosis.

As we talked further, I asked if I might normalize my experience, regardless of its reasonableness. That is, would I use a strategy to either adjust my values or the threat level to lessen my stress? For example, I value my family and they are under threat. To mitigate the stress I feel, I will tend toward either lowering the value I assign to my family, “They don’t mean THAT much…” (so I can run away…); or, raising the level of threat necessary to invoke my action, “It’s not THAT bad…” (so I can just ignore the threat). Either way, I lower my stress level.

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Fear and Anxiety Response

William T. Gibson, a Caltech postdoctoral fellow and first author on a study investigating the possibility that fruit flies may experience fear analogous to humans affirms, “…flies have four fundamental drives just as humans do: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and mating.”

He examined fear in flies by looking at the fundamental building blocks of fear, which he calls “emotion primitives” –

  1. First, fear is persistent. If you hear the sound of a gun, the feeling of fear it provokes will continue for a period of time.
  2. Fear is also scalable; the more gunshots you hear, the more afraid you’ll become.
  3. Fear is generalizable across different contexts, but it is also trans-situational. Once you’re afraid, you’re more likely to respond in fear to other triggers: the clang of a pan, for instance, or a loud knock at the door.

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Fear and Need

Why do I fear? In a world based in survival, being fearful seems to be a normal part of life. I associate fear as a necessary component of wanting to live. Without fear there is no desire, no drive to continue to exist. In nature, without fear, there could be no fight or flight response. The need to be alive is very much like an addiction we can’t overcome.

We learn that even newborn human babies have fear, such as the startle response to falling and sudden loud sounds. Where does such fear come from – while the baby’s in a peaceful space in mother’s womb? How does the startle reflex fit into the instinctual characteristics of fight and flight? Perhaps the startle response is a characteristic of fight and flight. Like the “deer in the headlights” response, where no movement is a defense.

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