It’s midnight. Everyone is sleeping and all is still. There are only the usual sounds of your home, the fridge is lightly buzzing, the dishwasher is sloshing around, the leaves are rustling outside on this windy night… You’re just finishing up something and preparing for a blissful night’s slumber and, lost in thought, you don’t even notice the regular sounds you’re so used to, they are simply not there for you. Suddenly there is a loud thump.
That shouldn’t have happened in your model of a calm evening in a space you know so well. The already sleepy brain snaps awake and listens. Now that’s one of the biggest discoveries in psychophysiology – the orienting reflex. It’s here to keep you alive and make you aware of dangerous things that don’t fit into the model of the environment you’ve created inside. For the brain the known is safe. It conserves energy and automates anything it can into a habit, or just tunes out all that is unchangeable. Things that stay the same are no threat, while an anomaly is the unknown, the chaos that seeped in and has a much higher chance of being potentially dangerous. We like to believe we can objectively see objects, patterns, and situations, but we can’t. We’ve been designed to survive and what we see is not a thing in itself, but its usefulness to our existence.
As Jordan Peterson explains, the orienting reflex is a strong built-in mechanism that orients us towards things we don’t understand. Were you to be exposed to the same tone droning on for a while you’d just tune it out after a while and go about your business because it is safe to assume that a constant is safe. But as soon as the tone volume or pitch changes, you notice it, you’re alert. It’s an instinctual thing, inbuilt to help you make sense of your surroundings and it works on a precognitive level, initially bypassing the higher brain structures. So you’d first pull your hand away from the hot stove than think about the implications of getting burned or would first jump away if something peeps through the bushes in the woods, rather than contemplate if it is a baby deer or a mama bear. First, we get startled and, if the source of the change is not obvious or easily and conclusive identifiable immediately, the initial fright soon escalated into fear and panic. The whole body goes into a physiological reaction, followed by an emotional reaction in which the higher brain regions go back on-line to rationalize, assess… and explore. This applies to simple things as frights when something goes bump in the night, as well as life-changing events in which the current mind schema you’ve created about your world is shattered, such as betrayal, deceit, getting cheated on, finding out that someone is not who you thought they were. It could take weeks, months, and years to process before the psychophysiology comes back to neutral.
The idea of chaos and order reverberating from the Yin-Yang symbols is echoed in our hemispheric brain adaptation. The left hemisphere is (in most people) dedicated to the explored territory and the known. It’s a space in which we can accurately assess which actions are going to have which effects in reality. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is the exploratory one that thinks in metaphors and is the root of imagination. If you were to get startled by a midnight thump, the right hemisphere would quickly jump into making elaborate scenarios on what it could have been. We like to know because what we’re able to conjure up in presumptions if we don’t know is often far wilder than reality, which mostly takes the “simplest solution is usually right” route.
As usual, truth and meaning are to be found in the middle. The left needs to allow the possibility that it cannot fully map the environment because things change all the time. The right hemisphere needs to allow a regulatory impulse from the left hemisphere not to go into the stratosphere with the ideas and concepts not grounded in reality. One foot in known and other in unknown – that’s when you’re truly alive, stable enough to be able to plan some things long term, and challenged enough to grow and adapt to the changes occurring all the time so you could course correct and act according to the most real thing you can see.