The wisdom of snakes

I went out today to my new fieldsite. It’s a farm just 20 minutes from here and pretty idyllic, perched in the hills above the sea and surrounded by state forest. While I was walking about the farm and getting my bearings I went along a ridge-line and along a path among some trees. I was looking across to the forest where I expected the local wild dogs were resting up when I suddenly found myself in mid-air, looking down between my hanging feet at a shiny, scaly body, uncoiling and making an s-bend beneath me. I spread my legs as far as I could on my way down and thankfully landed my feed either side of the blue and yellow snake who was by that time making off from between my legs and into some scrub beside the trail. It was a harmless tree snake, but boy was my heart racing!

I’m always fascinated by my encounters with snakes. Usually I see them when I’m bike riding but sometimes when I’m walking and occasionally when I’m swimming. They always get a reaction from me – whether a sideways jump, involuntary expletive, heart kicker or all of the above – and after the encounter is done I always feel very smug. This is because my reactions conform to a theory.

In 1971 a guy called Martin Seligman came up with what he called ‘Preparedness Theory.’ He noted with interest that humans develop fears of biologically relevant stimuli, such as spiders and snakes, more readily than we develop fears of things which might be far more dangerous in the modern world (such as overloaded power outlets). This, he argued, is because we’re biologically prepared to fear the biologically relevant dangers. The ancestral humans who didn’t readily fear snakes didn’t do so well in terms of survival and reproduction while our ancestors who did, ended up with fear-ready descendants such as us. I did a lit review of all this in my honours thesis and I find preparedness theory pretty convincing. I’ve even gone so far to suggest that there are templates for fear-relevant stimuli grown in a primitive corner of our brains called the thalamus. This little kidney-bean of a brain-part waits for a real-life encounter with a biologically relevant danger. When the owner of the brain encounters a snake, the thalamus short-circuits consciousness and sends a message straight to the amygdala which initiates a fear response, such as increase heart-rate, jump, swear, void bowels.

This is what we might call human wisdom in evolutionary terms. It’s an adaptive skillset that we don’t even need to learn. We might build on it (or reduce it) with real-life encounters with fear-relevant stimuli but in terms of adaptiveness we come with a snake response-package right off the shelf and ready to run. This is what I reflected on after my encounter. I was airborne before I was even conscious of the snake beneath my feet and in that eternity that I was in the air, I took stock of what was happening and even recognised the species of snake. But my heart wasn’t listening to my conscious brain, it was only taking orders from my amygdala and was racing by that time. It underlines the pre-conscious nature of the fear response in humans and how much it is primed to respond to snakes. So is it any wonder that snakes represent wisdom in so many cultures? They trigger something deep in the human psyche; something primal. They know how to get into our heads and bodies.

Have you ever encountered a snake? Did you respond according to the theory or did you carry on without even a quickened heartbeat?


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3 thoughts on “The wisdom of snakes

  1. The Australian bush used to means lots of snakes. And I always jumped. Distinctly remember looking into the face of a Brown snake when I was a ten year old. A couple of years ago I came across a Yellow Belly Black hit on the road and dying. I watched as its eyes lost their light over a minute and it died. I am pretty sure it knew I was there as it kept turning it eyes to me. Since then I still jump with every hair alive – but its different now.


  2. Pingback: Learning to un-fear snakes | Among Animals

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