Threat detection and the many ways it can go wrong

Dear President Trump,

This morning I noticed a little rough patch in the plastic retainer I have to wear to shift that tooth that is out of whack since I fell last year. For what seemed like a long time my tongue couldn’t leave that one spot alone, finding the anomaly far more interesting than the rest of the still smooth surface. Seems like you can probably relate to this tendency to get kind of hung up on whatever doesn’t seem quite right and how hard it can be to let it go even if, at some level, you know it’s trivial or just a distraction from the bigger issues you’d rather not focus on.

Fortunately the rough patch in the plastic receded into the background pretty soon, but it got me thinking about what we notice, choose to focus on, and why. Surely there is an evolutionary aspect to this such that animals that are good at detecting dangerous anomalies and novelties in their environments (including their own bodies) are favored for survival and reproduction. Since a lot of dangers don’t jump out and announce themselves as such, those who are good at basic anomaly detection would likely have a leg up over the oblivious ones since the former are able (theoretically) to then discern whether it’s problematic or threatening in some way and take action or not based on their assessment.

The system is fairly complex and there are lots of ways for it to break down. If an animal is distracted and doesn’t notice the predator lurking that animal is likely not long for this world. If an animal is so on edge over absolutely every little thing and they can’t do a good job of resting or getting enough to eat that animal is likely to have a short lifespan. If an animal misinterprets an anomaly and deems it safe when it is in fact dangerous, its survival is imperiled. If an animal has been conditioned not to respond defensively to small incursions they may not respond effectively as those incursions grow into real dangers. And if you add in a social context, everything gets exponentially more complicated. For example, there’s worry about how other animals will judge their responses to anomalies and whether they will be believed if they report harm. They may also be subject to having fears planted, manipulated, and exploited by nefarious actors like you.

May we feel safe when we are safe.
May we be happy to not foment bogus fears.
May we have healthy responses to novelties.
May we make peace with difference.

Tracy Simpson

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