Think back…what’s the most intense memory you have? Oftentimes, the events of our lives that we tend to remember the most involve intense emotional responses (good or bad) to the events themselves. We owe this to an area of the brain known as the limbic system; it consists of several structures that are heavily involved in the formation of our memories. The amygdala, a piece of flesh the mere size of an almond, is responsible for what is known as fear conditioning and the cognitive processes that our bodies experience when we develop a fear of something.
Additionally, the limbic system consists of several other structures such as the hippocampus, responsible for long-term memory storage, the olfactory complex (which is why it is often said that smell is the sense with the strongest tie to memory) and the hypothalamus, whose job entails maintaining a state of homeostasis throughout the body by producing hormones that regulate the production and inhibition of other hormones from our other organ systems.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on the endocrine system.
Within the endocrine system itself, to narrow things down even further, we find, among other organs, the adrenal glands. You have two of these glands, one sitting on top of each of your kidneys. One of the hormones that each of these glands produces, you are undoubtedly familiar with: epinephrine, or more commonly known as…ADRENALINE!
Adrenaline is the hormone that results in what is known as the “fight-or-flight” response that we experience during a stressful or fearful situation. Stimulating the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, adrenaline results in our heart beating faster, our airways opening to allow more vital oxygen into our cells, our pupils dilating, the release of additional glucose (ENERGY!) from the liver, and the diversion of blood flow from non-essential organs, such as our bowels, to our brains and muscles…prepping us to scissor-kick some shit if necessary!
You see, the human body is amazing. Bones, muscle, nerves, skin…individually useless. But, stitched together into a interconnected web, they have the capacity to make one hell of an incredibly well-oiled machine, powered by the greatest super-computer the world will ever know…the brain.
Writing this, I can’t help but be reminded of my experience with these very processes last July. I had backed our Jeep out of the garage early in the day to allow our housing/hospital maintenance guys to get to our basement to check out the AC that was on the fritz. That afternoon, before moving it back into the garage, I busted out the BBQ and, deciding to take the grates out and give them a good cleaning before firing it up, I rounded the front of the car and, coiled up under the front passenger tire, was a rattlesnake…hands down, my greatest physical fear. I immediately stopped dead in my tracks and could literally feel the physiological changes happening within my body. I experienced tunnel vision as my eyes became hyper-focused on the snake and its location. My heart began racing, I could feel my hands become moist with perspiration. Blood flow was shunted away from my skin, causing me to experience a wave of cool over my body, my breaths deepened, and I could feel a rush of blood to my brain, resulting in a lightheaded feeling.
There was no conscious thought that had to occur. The fact of the matter was, plain and simple, one of us was about to fucking die. I certainly had no intention of experiencing the bite of a snake or the subsequent trip to the Emergency Room in my own backyard, followed by an air flight to a larger hospital with an Intensive Care Unit. Therefore, never breaking eye contact, I sat the grill grate down, grabbed my shovel that, thankfully, happened to be right next to me in the corner of the garage, and got down to business. After it was over, I went over to the door and yelled for my wife…who, of course, thought I was full of shit. I could then begin to feel the effects of the parasympathetic system kicking in, prompted by the hypothalamus working to bring me back to that state of homeostasis. My heart rate began slowing down, my respiratory rate began to relax, my hands began tremling, and I suddenly felt the urge to pee…thankfully, my body prevented me from pissing my pants at the sight of the snake! 🙂
This anatomy lesson was all a preface to my next post, in which I will discuss my encounter with fear from more of a personal finance standpoint, entitled Don’t Be Afraid to Run! I really hope you’ll decide, if you haven’t already, to follow along with my family’s journey to financial independence. And definitely come back for my next post, which will be coming on Friday!
Please comment below and share your own adrenaline-induced memory.
– Nurse on Fire