Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Our world is filled with threats. For my purposes I will divide them into two categories:

Specific or immediate threats: a hornet nest has just fallen in front of you, your wife throws a flower pot at you.

Generic or abstract threats: the national debt, the Casey Anthony verdict.

The human animal evolved with the specific threats as a major factor and with general threats as a minor factor. In the six or so million years that humans first walked upright we’ve dealt, from a survival perspective, almost exclusively with highly specific threats such as Lion Attack!! Threats such as Lion Attack!! have a number of common factors: they are apparent, they are apparent to everyone, and they are actionable. That last part is important. You can do something about Lion Attack!! Your choices are basically run away or defend.

The first permanent settlements to include groups larger than a single family clan happened about 10,000 year ago. For most of the world, though, settlement would come much later. With settlement came the generalized threat. This would include fitting into society, loss of control over individual destiny, worry about what the gods wanted and the like. These threats are the inverse of specific: they are not apparent, they do not appear the same to everyone and they are not actionable directly.

Over the years we’ve seen the rise of general threats in tandem with the decline of specific threats. In the news media we see a world of mayhem and murder, filled with wars and verdicts even as we go about our lives very safely with air bags and the consumer product safety commission to protect us. Still, we feel the same stress hormones due to these general threats such as government programs we disagree with, terrorism, and violence in society, but we have no direct way of reliving this stress.

Some folks institute a “general defense.” I would argue that gun ownership is often just such a coping mechanism. There is no specific threat that gun owners are defending against, yet the idea that they would be able to cope should a specific threat arise is comforting. It is a dissociated defense for a dissociated threat.

I think most “food allergies” are also mostly a psychosomatic attempt to link an obtuse general threat to some specific causal agent. Some recent studies have shown that environmental allergies are, simply, panic disorder. It’s been shown that in double blind tests “allergic” people exhibit reaction at random to stimulus. That is, they are just as likely to freak out if the cookie contains wheat or not because the cookie is a proxy for everything from China to the decline of American oil.

I think there’s one more coping response. Motorcycling. Motorcycling presents us with real specific threats every time we ride. We face oncoming turns, sand in the road, ill-mannered road users and every other manner of mayhem. All the accumulated stress hormones from long exposure to general threats we face can be washed away because here, finally, is a threat we can do something about. Our brain stems and bodies don’t know we’re not fixing the national debt or resolving the debate about gay marriage, it just recognizes a real peak and valley in tension, the kind of peak and valley you get from overcoming a specific threat. That’s the signal to relax and let it go, until you watch the news again.

In the end I am brother to all those who ride not because of political affiliation or social clan, but because we are all animals. We are simple beasts living in a system too complex for ourselves and we’ve found a way to cope.