The Mighty Mammal Brain, How Silly It Can Be

The Mighty Mammal Brain, How Silly It Can Be

I found out today that the word “panic” has its roots in a Greek word related to the God of Mischief, named Pan. Pan evidently was blamed for all sorts of things, but, specifically, he was the dude responsible for the scary noises you hear in the woods, especially at night.  

Years ago, I was camping with my then boyfriend in a remote location in the Colorado wilderness. It was a gorgeous and colorful fall weekend and we were all by ourselves in the national forest. After a delightful day of tromping around the creek and hiking in the woods, we were relaxing with a campfire. It was a particularly dark night as there was a new moon and the stars were incredible.  

Suddenly, our enjoyable night became a nightmare. There was this rustling noise adjacent to our camp and it got progressively louder and scarier and closer. Clearly something big was coming towards us. What was making the noise?! We couldn’t see anything but had narrowed it down to a hungry bear or a mean spirited human. 

Seriously, there were no other options. We had determined that the noise was too loud and forceful to be a deer or even an elk. We weren’t in moose country so it wasn’t that (plus they are actually super quiet animals due to their unique spongey hoof structure…that’s another story for another day about the time when I ran into a moose and her calf and never heard them coming).  

Bear or human? Crunch! Rustle! Crunch! Closer! Closer still! Aggghhh!  Bear?! Human?!?  

How big and mean was this bear going to be? How horrible was this human going to be? We were probably preferring the bear to the human, but regardless we were SCARED. We got closer to the fire, put on some more wood so the flames were bigger, stuck together and got ready to face whatever horrendous thing was going to storm out of the bushes and try to kill us. We were, frankly, feeling pretty freaked out.  

Then the cutest little guy pops out of the bushes. He was a little weasel, called an ermine. Looks like a ferret only his coat was turning white. Check out this article about one of his buddies who enjoys a local ski shop a few mountains over from where we were.

Now this little guy was adorable. And tiny. And not at all a threat to us. On the contrary, we were a much bigger threat to him then he to us. Despite this, he wanted to play. And play he did. He flirted with the fire and ran around and made all sorts of noise (seriously, it was amazing how loud this little thing could be) and approached and retreated and played around for an hour. He was a total joy to interact with. What a special experience! A fellow mammal wanted to play. No threat, just play.

How funny our brains are in action. We are so good at predicting the worst and bracing ourselves for trouble. Panic arrives before we even have any evidence of a problem. Notice how we had ruled everything out except a hungry bear or a mean human. Not just a bear, not just a human. Whatever it was, it was out to get us before we even knew exactly what “it” was. 

Now I will always want folks to be prepared for possibilities, but most of the time we are only prepared for the very worst possibility before we have assessed what the reality is. We future trip to the worst outcome, instead of taking a few more minutes in the present moment to see what we are actually dealing with. I wonder the last time your brain took you to BIG! MEAN! BEAR! when it was just a playful, tiny, beautiful, little ermine. 

Challenge yourself to examine your brain’s tendency to catastrophize and focus instead on the positive spectrum of possibilities right in front of you.  Happy fall!