On snakes and brains


(8/22/2018)

From: Gabe Ericksen
Winona

In response to Mr. Cooker’s opinion piece about his discomfort with rattlesnakes, I’d like to toss in my two cents worth regarding my own concerns. Like Mr. Cooker, I have a strong gut reaction when I come across snakes — any snakes, not just the venomous ones! It’s something about how they don’t have legs ... and they slither ... and they always seem to materialize in front of you from out of nowhere. My friends who have been with me when I’m startled by snakes could tell you that unintelligible imprecations erupt from my lips followed by stomping off in an attempt to calm my racing heart. I’m sure it’s quite entertaining to watch.

My reaction to snakes, just as many people’s reactions to spiders or scorpions, are well established instincts from the part of our brain called the amygdala. This is one of the more basic and oldest (evolutionarily speaking) parts of the complex brain. Some call it the “lizard brain.” It has obviously been very important in our development on this planet. Fortunately, we also have a few additional parts in our brains beyond just what the lizards have.

We also have a “mammalian brain” — the limbic system. The limbic system has a more developed sense of memory, is more relational, and has a more developed skill for assessing risk. On top of that we also have a “primate brain” — the cortex, and this is the area where the human brain can really shine. To this part of the brain we can attribute complex and abstract reasoning, empathy, cooperation, language, and most of the things that generally allow us to live in society.

To put it simply, I am concerned that sometimes we allow our “lizard brains” to call too many of the shots. I’m not recommend that we don’t acknowledge what that part of our brain is telling us, it certainly has its role. But as long as we have them we should probably also be accessing our ‘higher’ brains! We need to do better research, to be better observers, and to learn to coexist better with some of the creatures with which we can’t easily identify.

I have recently been attempting to gain a better appreciation for snakes (especially rattlers) by seeking them out and photographing them. I have been finding them to be quite chill, with rattles easy to hear (when they are actually rattlesnakes), and stunningly beautiful in spite of the fact that they do still sometimes give me the willies.

Let’s please forego the “Turn them all into belts” option.

 

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