The Sky’s not Falling In!!!!!
The day after the school’s closed due to the pandemic, a pretty unusual ‘Late Late Show’ aired on RTÉ. No audience attended and there were representatives from the health service, teachers and voluntary organisations present to discuss the unfolding and unprecedented situation. It was all entirely surreal, but what stood out for me, was a peculiar wee story that psychologist David Coleman told to sum up the dangers inherent in a collective fear-reaction.
Explaining a little-understood involuntary response that many of us might more readily associate with the frozen ‘rabbit in the headlights’, his short but insightful analogy immediately brought Chicken Licken and his panicky, contagious and ultimately doomed story to mind.
He explained that fear can trigger a primitive survival mechanism in chickens called ‘tonic immobility.’ The story got interesting when he went on to outline the potential outcomes should a second chicken happen upon the scene. If, on seeing the response of the first chicken, the second chicken evaluates ‘there must be risk in the environment,’ it too goes into fear-triggered tonic immobility. In this scenario, a peculiar feedback loop emerges, whereby a paralysis response from the second chicken actually extends the immobility period of the first. If, however, the second chicken remains relaxed and doesn’t have a fear reaction, this calmness triggers the first chicken to return to normality.
So it turns out, there’s a grain of great wisdom in the story of Chicken Licken. Taken together with the story of the contagiously fear-frozen chickens, there’s undoubtedly a lesson to be learnt in these extraordinary times.
I’m not a neuroscientist, but through arts and most recently yoga research, the field’s cutting-edge brightness keeps attracting me to its light. Using my work-a-day knowledge, what follows is a re-reading of Chicken Licken as a nugget of neurobiological wisdom.
Simplistically explained, we possess the same brainstem functions, or ‘reptilian brain’ reactions as chickens do. This evolutionary heritage imbues hardwired responses that were coded to improve our survival chances. Our shared ‘reptile brain’ looks after all the basic, survival essentials like breathing, balance, heart rate and reflexes. It also gives us ‘spidey-senses’ or ‘neuroception;’ that ability to involuntarily detect things without having to be consciously aware of them; rooting for example our ‘orientation response’ (the ‘what is it?’ reflex), and our ability to localise sound sources. The behaviours driven by this relic code show up for example in a baby’s ‘startle response’ or when seeing another person’s yawn causes you to involuntarily yawn. These below-the-radar processes serve us well generally, until, of course, they don’t.
Instinctual drives have a powerful influence over our behaviours. Interestingly, as the psychologist’s anecdote about the fear-paralysed chickens indicate, these can also affect our collective behaviours. In times of adversity, we rely on instinct to keep us right, but it’s important to realise how much our primitive brain trades on the currency of fear. Fear is sticky, insidious stuff, and it’s an area of specialty for our brainstems. Safely tucked away from the illuminating, questioning light of conscious thought, fear (and its close relatives, trauma, guilt etc.) like to hide their difficulties away in this least flexible, most resistant-to-change area of our brain architecture. It’s bad enough when this quirk of evolution causes individuals to tend towards negativity, but if fear gets to drive group behaviours without recourse to reflective thought or voluntary control, this would surely be a recipe for disaster.
Chicken Licken wasn’t long out of his egg, when his infantile startle reflex was triggered by a falling acorn. His instinctual code (which prioritised fear and survival) drew the most negative of conclusions regarding the threat risk in the environment. Were he a real chicken, tonic immobility would have kicked in and, if they had happened upon him, the chances are that Henny Penny and Cocky Locky might also have fallen prey to the contagion of paralysing fear. It wouldn’t have made for much of a story though. Instead, in typical style, we anthropomorphised our feathered friends and gave them a mammalian, limbic brain, and with it the ability to emulate ‘fight or flight’. Now the story could really take wings.
Frantically flapping towards frenzy, Chicken Licken and his feathered cast of characters thereafter give us a perfect illustration of what is known as ’emotional contagion.’ Our anti-hero could not constrain himself from spreading his fear through the neighbourhood. Neither Ducky Lucky nor Goosey Lucy (or indeed any of the other ill-fated fowl) questioned the chicken’s knee-jerk reaction or catastrophic conclusion that ‘the sky was falling in’ and that the remedy was ‘to tell the king’. What might have unfolded differently had perhaps Ducky Lucky or even Turkey Lurky been calm enough to reflect coolly on the on the situation, breaking the other’s from their involuntary mimicry before it all spiralled towards its grim ending? Even if the anthropomorphised cast had a neocortex, (evolutionarily the most advanced part a brain), it’s unlikely that they would have been able to access it. Fear brings rigidity and a sense of narrowing possibilities to decision-making processes, literally arresting the ability to bring creativity or logical analysis to bear. In short, fear is a formula for bad decisions.
Foxy Loxy (who it seems, did have access to his thinking, planning neocortex) was immune to the unfolding drama. He wasn’t affected by the contagion, and in fact, from a place of calm outside the group’s hurricane of mass hysteria, quickly spotted an opportunity to capitalise on the chaos. Ultimately, his access to higher brain functions allowed him to bag a larder full of prey. For the fear-driven birds however, a worst-case-scenario was prophesised and neatly fulfilled. The world, for our protagonist and his friends, did end, and infectious panic was of course, the catalyst.
So, what wisdom does this bring to us today? Panic buying due to unconscious collective fear, is certainly a sign of the Chicken Licken reptile brain taking over. Someone unconsciously noticed someone, who subliminally noticed someone else unconsciously doing it, so they copied it. Add to this behaviour the amplifying power of social media and you can quickly see global hysterias form. (Emotional contagion was controversially ‘researched’ by Facebook ). Crazy anomalies like stock-piling lou-roll for a respiratory illness, or ‘telling the king’ about ‘the sky falling in’ happen when fear paralyses the brain’s ability to access logic. There’s more to this moral tale however than learning to over-ride unconscious impulses and refrain from emptying lou-roll shelves.
Fear not only robs us of our ability to think properly, fear also actually undermines our body’s ability to fight illness. Although we’ve been led to believe that immunity is all about antibodies, a ‘systems theory’ reading of immunity (see for example Shiva Ayyadurai) and a growing field of expertise called psychoneuroimmunology, proves what yoga and other body/mind practices have known for centuries; our nervous systems and immune systems are intimately related. Science now proves that fear, stress and anxiety can actually supress the ability of our immune system to work properly, and conversely, joy, laughter and calm could be cultivated to nourish it.
(Below are some links to some nourishing, calming practices, sounds and information. The next post will look more closely at this brain/immunity link.)
Breathing Practice: Sama Vritti Pranayama to ground and bring equanimity.
Yoga for Anxiety: 20 minute practice with Adriene
Yoga and Neuroscience: See Subtle Yoga’s excellent online course here.