Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Fight or Flight?

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager


What makes one person able to run into a dangerous situation to help, and another be compelled to run in the opposite direction? All humans have the same biological responses to fear, but some people are able to overcome them.

It seems that we are constantly bombarded with the fears of modern living. Media informs us of the dangers of our life styles, health choices, food, cars, communities, other people, animals, and super bugs, just to name a few.

Most of us have become conditioned to those daily fears, but when events like shootings, terrorist attacks, and senseless violence happen, we begin to wonder what our own response would be if we were in those situations.

The human brain contains more than 100 billion brain cells that work together to produce autonomic responses in cases of extreme fear. We do not intentionally have physical reactions, but instead, our body responds automatically.

Several parts of the brain are involved in the fear response. The thalamus decides where to send the incoming stimuli while the sensory cortex interprets the data. The hippocampus helps to decide the context of the event and the amygdala decodes emotions and determines if there is a real threat. Finally, the hypothalamus activates the fight or flight response, if it is necessary.

There are two paths to the fear response which occur simultaneously. The low road is quick and causes a “take no chances” reaction while the high road involves more interpretation and considers the options.

Our bodies immediately react to the stress hormones like adrenalin being produced with physical signals such as our heart rate quickens, blood pressure increases, mouth dries out, pupils dilate, veins constrict sometimes causing a chill or goose bumps, and blood glucose levels rise. Smooth muscles relax to allow more oxygen into the lungs, non-essential systems like digestion shut down, and we have trouble focusing on small tasks.

Fear is essential to mankind’s survival when will and reason are powerless against danger. Early man knew that rain sometimes came with frightening thunder and lightning producing fire, so he learned to stay inside. Rational fear is manageable and keeps us from doing things like walking down a dark ally.

Studies have shown that teenagers fear such things as terror attacks, death, failure, war, being alone, and the future. New research is focusing on the fear of bullying and its short and long term effects on learning. Chronic fear can be emotionally and physically debilitating as seen in phobias.

Recent events in Boston have caused some of us to question and cope with our own levels of fear. What would be our own reaction in such a situation? Would we run to help others or would we run in the other direction? The answer lies in our ability to deal with our fight or flight response. Let’s all hope that we never need to discover the answer. President Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Signs of Spring

By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover - Visitor Services Manager

Signs of Spring

Pansies blooming, purple martins arriving, grass getting green, buds sprouting everywhere, temperatures warming, snakes slithering by—what?--snakes? No, that’s not one of most people’s favorite harbingers of spring. Warmer days call humans to come outdoors and snakes to slither out from under their napping places.

“Sssnakes” at Port Discover’s Afterschool Science on March 28, 2013
Last week Port Discover hosted an outreach program from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “Snakes” was the topic for the afterschool program attended by 45 students.

Our presenter brought several of her slithery friends with her and allowed the students to pet them and ask lots of questions. Her companions included a very impressive ball python, a common black rat snake, and a brown water snake which so many people mistake for a venomous water moccasin.

She told us that North Carolina has 35 species of snakes of which six are venomous. They are the eastern coral, copperhead, cottonmouth, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, timber rattlesnake and the pygmy rattlesnake.

Copperheads are found in all 100 NC counties and are responsible for 90 percent of the state’s venomous snakebites. They are edge dwellers and love ivy and the cover of rocks. They are less likely to slither away from humans than other snakes, and usually freeze in place. If you see one, the best thing to do is back away. Most snakebites happen when people are trying to kill the snake. In general, most snakes are just as afraid of you as you are of them.

My personal theory concerning wildlife is that I enjoy watching them from a distance. If they don’t bother me, I certainly won’t bother them. The problem with snakes is that they are silent and blend into their environment so well that you might come up on one without meaning to do so, thus startling both of you.

Last December in Queensland, Australia a little boy, age 3, found some eggs and wanted to keep them. His mother provided a container and let the child keep them in his room. A few days later, she found that the container was full of hatchlings of eastern brown snakes which are one of the most venomous snakes on Earth. She took the snakes to a sanctuary where they were released into the wild.

In Darwin, Australia, a daycare facility had to be closed because of an infestation of 23 baby pythons. Upon investigation, the mother and more babies were found hidden in the wall of the center. Stories like these help maintain the snake’s fearsome reputation.

Snakes are invaluable to humans because they help control such pests as rodents and insects. Scientific study is being done to discover other beneficial uses. Snake venom might be used to treat cancer and diabetes someday. The venom of the Black mamba effectively blocks pain in mice and may become an alternative to opiate drugs.

As with all wildlife, people should show respect for snakes and their place in the natural order, but keep a safe distance.
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