Monday, December 3, 2007

Are you like a caveman?

While tearing over to the Whole Foods at Alewife at 7:45 tonight - in pursuit of salad bar goodness after a 13-hour day at the office - I was yelled at by a Cambridge cop.

I was on a narrow, two-way street. There was an emergency vehicle blocking 1/2 the incoming lane. I was proceeding slowly in my lane, uncertain if the oncoming traffic was going to go around the ambulance and invade my lane. As I proceeded forward at around 20 miles an hour, I found myself face-to-face with a cop.

It was nearly 8:00 at night. The street was poorly lit. The cop was wearing a cop outfit - navy pants, navy jacket, and even a navy hat with ear flaps and a chin tie.

He screamed at me for "driving into oncoming traffic" while being directed by a cop to stop. I rolled down my window, apologized, and explained that I couldn't see him because it was dark, there were no lights, and he was dressed in navy blue. He continued to scream at me. I apologized again, feeling my heart rate rise and unpleasant and unwise retorts rising in my throat. Aware that I have (a) a broken headlight, (b) two unpaid parking tickets, and (c) a 2009 inspection sticker to put on my license plate, I wisely chose to quickly put my window up and drive away.


What is it about authority figures who yell at us that causes the physiological response characterized by increase heart rate and blood flow - particularly to the extremities? I know this is the "fight or flight" response. Why does it happen?

Researchers at Ohio State University have conducted studies to examine if the fight or flight response was different for anger versus fear. It wasn't in their sample size of ten (10). In fact, it affirmed the symptoms of flight or flight for both situations. I'm intrigued particularly by the increase of blood flow to the limbs. Have you ever felt like you wanted to pound your fists, or run away? Is this because of the increased blood flow to the hands? The legs? Is that the reason for the response?

One online writer trying to explain this reaction writes that "fight or flight" is not rational, but rather hard-wired and primal. Wanting to punch a police officer for yelling at you when in fact he was directing traffic in the dark is not rational. But, should someone find themselves in that type of situation (hypothetically speaking), s/he may want to in fact punch that police officer. There are times when the punching instinct is useful (e.g. defending oneself against an attacker), and others when it is not useful (e.g. punching a police officer who is a poorly lit meglomaniac).

The next time I feel that tingling in my legs or hands or mouth in response to anger or fear, I'll consider what my Neanderthal ancestors are trying to express in me. And then I'll consider what is needed for my own survival in that situation. Shall I take a caveman course of action or the rational/enlightened 21st Century course?


Oh! I'm considering writing a letter to the Cambridge Police Department suggesting reflective gear for officers directing traffic at night on poorly lit streets. This would allow me, in this case, to respond in a righteous and smarty-pants kind of way. This is one of my favorite options when I'm consciously choosing not to punch or curse at cops.

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