Our brains are terrible at assessing modern risks. Here's how to think straight about dangers in your midst...
These days, it seems like everything is risky, and worry itself is bad for your health. The more we learn, the less we seem to know—and if anything makes us anxious, it's uncertainty. At the same time, we're living longer, healthier lives. So why does it feel like even the lettuce [with pesticides on it!] is out to get us?
The human brain is exquisitely adapted to respond to risk—uncertainty about the outcome of actions. Faced with a precipice or a predator, the brain is biased to make certain decisions.
The first item it points out hits home for me:
I. We Fear Snakes, Not Cars
Risk and emotion are inseparable.
Fear feels like anything but a cool and detached computation of the odds. But that's precisely what it is, a lightning-fast risk assessment performed by your reptilian brain, which is ever on the lookout for danger. The amygdala flags perceptions, sends out an alarm message, and—before you have a chance to think—your system gets flooded with adrenaline...Emotions are decision-making shortcuts.
As a result of these...emotional algorithms, ancient threats like spiders and snakes cause fear out of proportion to the real danger they pose, while experiences that should frighten us—like fast driving—don't. Dangers like speedy motorized vehicles are newcomers on the landscape of life. The instinctive response to being approached rapidly is to freeze. In the [past], this reduced a predator's ability to see you—but that doesn't help when what's speeding toward you is a car.
And sure enough, despite the fact that I work on roads for my occupation and know the frequency of accidents, I am I admit a bit scared of snakes. Never have I felt those same emotions getting into a car...
So here's to recognizing what's truly dangerous and not living in fear...