This is the story of how evolution, a loud noise, and red wine can turn you into a staring moron with a dysfunctional laptop.
After reading this, you too can confidently whisper: “fuck you, evolution” as you fumble with the paper towels to stop liquid inspiration from becoming one with the keyboard.
Because the sticky quagmire that was your laptop wouldn’t be in such dire straits if it wasn’t for a little neural pathway that kept your ancestors from getting stomped on.
See, back before the internet, people had to go out into the world to find food and mates and stuff. And while back then the world was full of slow things like glaciers, mammoths, and the plot of the Miami Vice remake, it was also full of quick things that needed human-sized snacks.
Stuff like sabre-toothed tigers, wolves, and other humans. And anyone with a slightly feral kitty – or intoxicated relatives at Christmas – will tell you, you need stupid-fast reflexes to avoid a bite, a swipe, or a cauterizing monologue about immigration.
Today, your brain has two sets of functions.
The high functions give you options.
Stuff like developing civilisation and inventing take-out so you don’t have to leave the house. These mean you can avoid saber-tooths and annoying relatives.
But your brain also keeps some really primal circuitry in place.
Base level stuff. It doesn’t just get rid of these circuits. It keeps them around. After all, these neural pathways kept your ancestors from becoming cat food. Who knows when that might be useful?
What’s the difference?
In what’s called the “high road” process, that loud noise from your poster falling down gets processed by the Thalamus.
The Thalamus acts as a sort of ancient secretary.
It’s hella old, and knows how everything in the office works. It also knows its place in the scheme of things. In this case, the Thalamus recognises this loud sound as information that needs further attention. Not necessarily from the CEO, because there isn’t enough data for a decision yet. And not by the Thalamus itself. But someone in between.
In this case, the Sensory Cortex acts like a middle manager.
Being both gifted and a bit egotistical, like most middle managers, Sensory Cortex vacillates over what to do with the information.
The loud sound could mean anything – a charging rhinos, a falling branch, your room-mate accidentally discovering your search history.
So like all good middle managers, Sensory Cortex passes the decision up the chain to the Hippocampus.
The Hippocampus guy is your inner savant.
You know that guy at your work who just gets things done?
Pulls decisions together from nowhere? And they’re always the right decision?
Yah, your Hippocampus is that guy. So Hippocampus compares the sound with other stimuli – such as the view of the bare wall where there was previously a poster.
It combines these inputs and recognises that this has happened before. From medium-term memory, it finds that you’ve had “buy more Blu-Tac to stop poster falling down” on the shopping list for ages.
Then the Hippocampus decides that the sound does not mean you need to avoid a stampeding herd. It tells the world at large that there’s no need to panic. And it fills out a panic-rejection notice. and passes it on to everybody’s whipping-boy, the Amygdala.
And then the Amygdala looks sheepish.
While this whole process has gone on, your brain’s already finished another routine.
An older routine. One called the “low road”.
See, the Thalamus is cunning.
Like all good secretaries, it doesn’t trust middle management. And it believes in covering its own ass. So while it passed the loud noise report to middle management, it also sent a copy of the memo straight to the Amygdala.
The Amygdala is like the new incompetent intern who doesn’t give a shit.
It has no idea what’s going, no one will talk to it, and it only ever gets the jobs no one else wants.
It doesn’t know what to do.
On one hand, IT COULD BE EPIC DANGER. It should sound the alarm, be the hero.
On the other hand, it knows it can’t get fired. Even if it activates the alarm system.
And it’s better safe than sorry, right?
So it hits the panic button AKA the Hypothalamus.
Immediately the Hypothalamus lights up like a virgin’s face at prom.
The first thing it does is to trigger the both the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system.
These two networks dump adrenaline, norepinephrine , adrenocorticotropic hormone and about 30 other hard-to-pronounce substances straight into your system.
It’s enough to make BP’s 2010 Gulf Spill look like accidentally dropping a half tab of aspirin in a kiddie pool.
What does this mean for you?
These chemicals cause panic responses right across the board:
- Liquids get diverted from extremities to your core, resulting in dry mouth, clammy hands and a pale face.
- All your non-essential systems shut down to allow more energy for emergency functions. This includes your digestive system, leaving your stomach feeling like you’ve been force-fed a bunch of gravel and pine-cones.
- Your brain focuses on identifying potential threats before they can hurt you, making you feel like an ADHD squirrel on guarana and red cordial.
It’s a high-twitch response that takes a fraction of a second to execute.
And a further 30 minutes to regret.
You to recoil from the source of the stimuli (your fallen poster) at speed. You haven’t paid attention to other objects around you (like your wine) because they are not seen as threats. So when you hit the wineglass towards your laptop, you don’t even notice it until it’s too late.
You are a quivering, twitchy mess.
And you’re left staring intently at the blank wall until your Amygdala gets a tap on the shoulder from the Hippocampus handing it a memo that says the stimuli is harmless. Along with a stare that says “you dipshit”.
Then you realise what an idiot you’ve been and scramble to mop up your cabernet malbec before it short circuits your keyboard.
So give thanks to evolution.
It put in all that effort to keep your ancestors alive long enough for you to feel cold, constipated, dry-mouthed and twitchy every time you hear a loud noise.
Not to mention the power it wields over your old laptop.