Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Deer in the headlights

I was just talking with my cousin the other day about deer. I live somewhere out "in the country", down a street that the pizza delivery woman described to me as "the deer road". This led to discussion between my cousin and I about the proper procedure when one is driving down the road and sees a deer. She says that common knowledge states that one is not supposed to swerve to avoid the deer (thus adding another unknown into an already complex situation), but rather to continue along the regular trajectory.

All of which makes sense. But why is it, then, that it is so hard to do so? Our first instinct is to do the OPPOSITE, that is, to swerve, to avoid, to react?


I just thought of this conversation again while reading an interesting article in today's NYT about hysteria. (It's not called hysteria anymore, they call it "conversion disorder", which deserves its own humorous meditation, but we'll save that for now). Then along came this little gem:

"Both its persistence and its pervasiveness suggest that hysteria may be derived from an instinctual response to threat. Total shutdown, in the form of paralysis, for example, is not an entirely untoward or unheard of response to an untenable situation. (Think of deer in the headlights.)"

It never ceases to amaze me how wonderfully intricate our wiring is, how reliably it seems to function. And yet at the same time the proliferation of ways that our minds, our wiring, DOESN'T work. How our instincts can save us, or they can drive us into greater peril.


Another side-note on the article about hysteria: It is also interesting to me that there is no mention of whether conversion disorder is still considered to be more common among women today, or if somehow symptoms that may be classified as conversion disorder vary by gender (but are, in effect, manifestations of the same disease). It is, for instance, already common knowledge that medicines have different effectiveness on men and women (though most medical trials of pharmaceuticals still posit the male as the normative patient). For more on sex differences in the male and female brain, read this fascinating Scientific American article.

The child awakens from the nap, off to make lunch.

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