1.  Being in a car with a driver who is texting

2.  Presenting to a room of 50 people

It should be #1 that generates the heart palpitations, sweaty palms, shallow breathing, shaky limbs of fear!  And yet, why doesn’t the very real life risk of texting while driving trigger this fear response, when standing in front of a roomful of interested, peace-loving audience members so often does?

Dean Buonomano (DB), author of Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives, is a professor of Neurobiology and Psychology at UCLA. His book is an insightful guide to the evolution of our brain and the ways it does (and doesn’t) serve us in the modern world. His metaphor is that our neurological “operating system” served the survival and reproduction of the first Homo sapiens more than 100,000 years ago, but because of evolution’s slow pace it makes many species adaptations ineffective today. (Consider the poor skunk who turns its tail to spray the “threatening” oncoming car. Poor skunk)!

DB writes at length about brain design, evolution, memory upgrades, crashes and the many “bugs” that explain why it is hard to remember names, why we are not good at financial planning, how fear empowers advertising, and the power of superstition.

I found his “Fear Factor” data the most fascinating and relevant. He writes, “Our evolutionary baggage encourages us to fear certain things because they comprised a reasonable assessment of what was harmful to our ancestors millions of years ago. But how appropriate are the prehistoric whispers in our genes in the modern world?” So our hunter-gatherer ancestors surviving in their tribes would find being alone, and “surrounded by strangers” a serious flight or fight trigger – today’s version of presenting to a roomful of people?

So, do these “fear” feelings we experience at the lectern serve best to remind us of our inner cave dweller?  Why hasn’t the system updated or why can’t we just logically unwind this ancient code?

Buonomano’s answer is that evolution is slow to evolve. The amygdala is an old structure that contributes to processing emotion and is of fundamental importance for the expression and learning of fear. “The number of connections (axons) heading from the amygdala to the cortical areas is larger than the number that arrive in the amygdala from the cortex.” So fear literally overrides reason.

While we intuitively know the power of the flush of fear, I found this book a fascinating exploration of the science of our brain structure and it’s processing. Being one of the most highly evolved species and yet seeing how many flaws and bugs exist in our hard and software is oddly reassuring.

Next time you are at the front of the room, have empathy for your inner cave dweller and soothe yourself with this neurological evidence. And next time someone texts while driving, please freak out!