Don’t Panic

“Don’t Panic” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has these famous friendly letters written on the cover to help your roving hitchhiker manage pretty much any situation as they rove around the galaxy. Panic, though, has its uses. When a threat exists that requires an immediate response without thought and cogitation, panic has a fair chance of keeping you alive. Panic attacks are when this goes wrong.

Crying man in foetal position
Panicked and overwhelmed

Fear is an integral part of our survival mechanism. If we had no fear, we would do things that would harm and probably kill us. That isn’t a good way to pass on your genetic material to the next generation, and from a biological perspective, that is the point of life. Passing on genes doesn’t require joy, contentment or comfort – merely survival.

 

When we see a threat, we need to work out if we it can be ignored (passive, passive aggressive), we can overcome it (assertive, aggression) or not (hide, run). When we react to the threat we can compare our reaction to the actual thing and work out if we have over or under reacted. If we over react, we waste our personal resources, if we under react, we may not overcome the threat – and that can be fatal. As you begin to address the threat you can also assess how effective your strategy is. If it is working, you can reinforce it; if it isn’t, you can change your strategy.

Scared man bungee Jumping
Adrenaline Rush

An important ingredient to this is control. You may not have chosen the threat (sometimes you do), but you can choose how you are going to defeat the known threat. Continual assessment of success against the threat allows for continual choices to be made. It might be scary, it might be dangerous, but we feel we can defeat it. We feel in control of the threat.

 

Adrenaline junkies are people who deliberately go out of their way to do something that is known to be dangerous, but in such a way that you are intellectually certain you should survive, even if your feelings are telling you that you shouldn’t. These people thrive on this conflict in the brain and the thrill of the act that brings the fear reflexes to the fore. This is then followed by a satisfaction that they have faced and defeated a threat. The satisfaction can be very addictive.

Different regions of the brain
Fore brain (above the eyes), and hind brain (above your neck)

Let us take a look at the difference between the intellectual assessment and the feeling assessment. The adrenaline junkie works on creating conflict between the two, yet that is conflict in the same brain. Surely this should be impossible! Yet it is not. In a simplified manner, the basic threat assessment that triggers the feeling of fear is all in the hind-brain. If you cup your hand to the back of your head, just above the neck, you are encapsulating the area that contains the amygdala, thalamus and hypothalamus. Some people refer to this region as the hindbrain, primitive brain, the monkey brain or the lizard brain. Of course neuroscience is far more complex than this simple representation – but this will help you get your head around the idea of separate processing in the same head.

 

The intellectual part of your brain is at the front, the cerebrum. Put your hands out in front of you, palm up. Now put your hand together so your palms are still up and your little fingers are now touching, your thumbs are pointing away from each other. Place the heel of your hands just above your eyebrows and the little finger join goes up your head until the tip of your finger touches the crown of your head (ish). Wrap your joined hands around your forehead. This region of your skull holds the frontal regions of your brain. There are two halves, the left and the right. Mostly they do the same thing with a few very specific “one side does this bit and that side does that bit” specialised processing. They communicate via a chunky bundle of communication neurons about the diameter of your thumb called the corpus callosum that connects one half to the other.

 

The intellect can take abstract ideas, facts and feelings and turn them into predictions of the future. Once we have these predictions, we make management plans. This is how we are going to manage that threat. This is what we will do if it doesn’t work.

 

Our hind brain isn’t concerned with the management plan the intellect will eventually get around to making, it needs to know if you are going to survive right now. It looks at the current knowns – this is here, that is there, in the past we did this, in the past we got hurt by that. It tries to work out the timeline of harm from the known threat and either handballs the problem to the intellect to solve (low to medium threat) or takes over and hits the panic button RIGHT NOW.

Baby showing worry, fear
Fear is a primal instinct

Fear has three immediate survival defaults. Flight – we can’t fight it, it’s seen us, get out, go – run away! Freeze – we can’t fight it, it hasn’t seen us, don’t get noticed, don’t be a tall poppy, stop painting that target on your back! Fight – we can fight it, or we can’t outrun it so what they hey, either fight or die. Based on the perceived threat, your hind brain decides to pick the most likely survival option and either triggers that reflex if the threat is immediate, or offers that reflex to the intellect if there is some perceived time between threat and consequence.

 

This is what makes you flinch from the incoming sports ball you didn’t know you saw, or step back from the curb to avoid the oncoming truck, or brace for the unexpected attack. Your hindbrain has quickly processed the environment and yelled “watch out” and taken over. Afterwards your intellect catches up and goes …. whoa.

 

The hindbrain is a quick and dirty calculator. It doesn’t really have good information, nor does it make logical conclusions. It sees the world as raw data and samples just enough to get an early warning. It is frequently wrong in how it perceives the world. Biologically speaking, if the hindbrain gives you 9 false alarms to 1 real alarm, it has done its job. Responding to the 9 false alarms doesn’t kill you, while failing to respond to the 1 real alarm might. Alive and uncomfortable trumps dead.

 

When the hind brain responds to clear and present danger saving you from harm, it is exactly what we need in this complex world. This is a fear response to a real event. When it hits the internal alarm button and there is no clear and present danger, we call this a panic attack.

 

There are two main ways the hindbrain can get things so wrong. One is that the automatic process has been miss-trained, the other is that it is being fed bad information by the intellect.

 

We’ll cover that next time.

This Week in What Fills Me with Awe: We are in the Big Bang

Time is a funny thing.

 

We know that the universe is about 14 billion years old, which seems incredibly old. A brief history of the universe goes thusly: Before the Big Bang is unknown and unknowable – time is the passing of events, that is change.  If there is no change, there is no time. “Prior” to the Big Bang, there was nothing to change, so there was no time. Then there was something. The entire observable universe existed in a spec smaller than an atom as we know it now, and it got really big. Within a fraction of what we call a second, the observable universe expanded to the size of about a grapefruit – approximately half a litre. While this doesn’t seem big from our standards now, if you consider the change in scale, this was the biggest and fastest expansion of the universe in relative scales in the entire history of the universe. We call this expansion the Big Bang. We tend to think that it happened in the past and we compare it to an explosion.

 

A slightly trippy thing to consider is that this is what we know about the *observable* universe. That first bit is really important. The bit outside the observable universe could just be more universe, or it could be nothing. As we observe the edge of our observable universe, the distribution of galaxies seems even and more or less uniform, implying that on the other side of that event horizon is just more universe. So at the point of the big bang, there could have been an universe the size of our observable universe of the start conditions. This can be a bit hard to visualise, so imagine the universe is flat and just an ink dot on an elastic sheet. Zoom in until all you can see is that dot. Now stretch the elastic sheet and zoom out at the same speed so that you can still only see that dot – the ink dilutes as the space expands. That is what we see. Now start again, but realise that the entire sheet of elastic is filled with ink, not just one dot. Consider how big our universe has got from that dot smaller than an atom to our current scale – 90 light years across – and apply it from a starting point of not less than one atom, but to Big Bang Stuff 90 light years across. And we will never know what it is out there.

 

About 300 million years after the Big Bang, the universe cooled down enough that matter formed and light was impeded. This is the first point where we can observe things – that is, matter. This is when our own Galaxy, the Milky Way (so named, because it looks like a milk road on the sky – blame the Romans) first formed. We have a few stars in our system that are still burning from that first coalescence of matter. Hydrogen was the first atom to form and it clumped together to form the first stars. These stars are very, very pure. All stars that have formed since have some impurities (known as metals when they aren’t hydrogen or helium – even though chemists don’t call those elements metals).

 

Our own Earth is about 4.5 billion years old – it came into creation about 2/3 of the age of the universe ago. Traces of life in the form of fossils have been found on Earth that date to about the time that the Earth’s crust cooled down after the late bombardment period. The Earth started as a big ball of molten rock, then it cooled down and formed a crust. Earth then cleaned up its orbit and got hit, a lot, by asteroids and other bodies (including Thea, a mars sized planet which ended up splitting proto-Earth in two – our Earth as we know it, and our Moon). Finally it cooled down again to form a new mineral rich crust and life formed almost immediately after it. This is about 3.8 billion years ago.

 

This life forming as soon as conditions were approximately right gives me great hope that life exists on any planet that conditions are approximately right.

 

Zoom forwards a few billion years and life leaves the oceans and populates the land. Viruses and Bacteria were first, followed by plants, then followed by the insects that evolved from crustaceans. Eventually vertebrates follow (evolved from fish). That eventually evolved into us humans (modern humans are about 200,000 years old) and every other form of life we see on the Earth. Life is continuing to evolve, ensuring that no niece that can be exploited for energy (food) remains untapped. This includes bacteria evolving to eat stuff in nuclear reactors. On the scale of life, if all of life on Earth were scaled to be 1 day, humans are about 4.5 seconds old. Soon that scale is going to be useless, so let us convert instead to 1 year. If life on Earth were scaled to exist in 1 year, then modern humans are 28 minutes old.

 

Recall my earlier note that as soon as life could form on Earth it did? The earliest that life conditions (as we understand it) could form in the observable universe was around 12 billion years ago (give or take a billion). If life took the opportunity to start then, just like it did here on Earth, then there has been life in the observable universe for 12 billion ish years. That is pretty cool.  If we do our year scale, humans are 8 minutes old.

 

But we haven’t got to the best bit yet!

 

Eventually our sun will die out as we know it, leaving behind a red dwarf.  Don’t panic, we have about another 5 billion years before that will happen. We have much more immediate concerns to weather – like the weather. Anthropogenic (human caused) Climate change will make the Earth uninhabitable by humans in only a few hundred years (unless we fix it – hint, hint). If we survive that, the sun will have grown to the point of being too hot for us in about 100 million years, moving the “Goldilocks Zone” past our Earth. We can potentially engineer a few solutions to that, or become space faring to escape the ever increasing heat.

 

The sun won’t really be dead in 5 billion years though, because it will become a type of star called a red dwarf. That red dwarf will burn for about a trillion years. That is 1,000 billion years. Consider that our entire observable universe is only 15 billion years old. If we turn that trillion years of age into 1 year again,  modern humans are 6.3 seconds old.

 

We still haven’t got to the best bit. Red dwarfs degrade into white dwarfs, whose lifespan is measured in a conservative quintillion years (1×10^18 years). That is a million times longer than a red dwarf. The estimated upper limit to the lifespan of white dwarfs is a number I can’t write down that makes any real sense – between 1×10^30 years to 1×10^200 years. And then the white dwarfs finally break down to black dwarfs. We don’t know how long they will last. White dwarfs are the last point that we can conceive of life as we understand it managing to live, after that, there isn’t sufficient energy distribution. Philosophical question: if the universe exists and there is no one there to appreciate it, does it matter? If we use the conservative number of the white dwarves lasting about a quintillion years, and we scale that to our year, then modern humans are about 6.3 micro seconds old. That is, a million microseconds pass to get to 1 second. We haven’t really happened.

 

This assumes that the Big Rip, or something similarly universe ending, doesn’t happen first. We are looking at how long the universe can go for. The Big Rip is where the accelerating expansion of the universe (confirmed and verified), fed by Dark Energy (seems to be an emergent aspect of space) gets so powerful it rips everything apart faster than it can form. Estimates on when this might happen vary from as little as the universe being aged 20 billion (whe our suns turns into a red dwarf) to 80 billion. That range tells you that we really don’t know. If the Dark Energy is an emergent property of space, and space continues to increase, then Dark Energy will continue to increase and lead to the Big Rip – where the space between things is so great that matter no longer has access to other matter. If it is not an emergent property of space, the universe won’t rip apart and we are down to the lifespan of black dwarfs.

 

Ok, so the universe is going to get really, really old. What of it? Remember how we were looking at our current human age compared to the scale of universal time and it started to seem very small…? 15 billion years seems like a long time when we are here at the 15 billion year mark, but compared to the projected lifespan of the universe, it is nothing. It started in an explosion and pushed outwards. Our universe is still expanding.

 

If you think about an explosion – like a hand grenade (named after pomegranates – blame the French) where you pull the trigger, it goes bang and sends shrapnel everywhere – that’s us. Very shortly after the reaction that started the explosion of the hand grenade, one of the bits of shrapnel formed life which became us, which became you, reading this. When we project where the pieces of the explosion are going and how long it will take to get there, and look at our place on that scale, the grenade just went bang, and we are in it – we are in that explosion riding a bit of debris.

 

The Big Bang was not a long time ago, it is now, and we are riding it.

 

And that is awesome.