I was wildly intrigued when first introduced to the concept of the fight-or-flight stress response. I ran it over furiously in my mind, calculating out “the way I was” and “what it all meant about me,” as if it were a personality test. As if my future success depended on whether I was a fight-or-flight kind of girl.
Fighter, obviously, the superior instinct: strong, confident, brave. Who wouldn’t opt for the heroic stress response? (As if one could reasonably opt for anything in the nanosecond of imminent danger.) And yet, I’ve seen enough movies to know that charging warrior-like into the face of danger is often the incorrect strategic move—that those unflinching fighters are just as frequently cannon fodder as they are heroes. Retreat and regroup; hide, wait, watch, plan your next move. Stay alive. Surely there is great strength in flight, too, and although not at all an intellectual choice (for we are still in the realm of instinct), there is wisdom in flight. A remarkably cyclical game of either/or hypotheses. It’s one thing to laugh when a kitten arches her back, raises her fur, and spits when surprised by a puppy, say, or a sudden noise. Or to marvel at a chameleon startled into camoflague. But if my children were in imminent danger, I’d want them to run, not hiss. And if I were with them, I presume I’d fight to protect them—maternal instinct over better judgment.
Trying to figure out if I fell into the fight-or-flight slot was ultimately a quagmire of nonsense. My future success was more likely put in peril by a blind faith in personality tests and the notion that a non-cognitive response of the nervous system could reveal anything consequential about how I live my day-to-day life. The truth is that the fight and flight instincts aren’t necessarily distinct from one another, aren’t specifically one or the other. They are complex systemic responses that, the more I thought about them, probably were best mapped on a Venn diagram, and I wouldn’t be an exception if I were to find myself mostly in the middle space where the circles overlapped.
While the concept of fight-or-flight brought me heedlessly down a path of false science, it was the language of the elaborate and primitive nervous system that led me back. What an evocative class of names! The sympathetic nervous system that detonates all those survivalist stress responses, and its soothing antidote, the parasympathetic nervous system. And that great regulator of bodily response, the autonomic system, which sounds like it belongs in a Robert Heinlein novel rather than in our spinal column.
As in so much science fiction, the less strictly accurate the science, the more poetic its possibilities. And in the course of sampling and resampling the suggestive terminology and its nuanced physiology, it became impossible for me to shake the astonishing relationship between the architecture of the nervous system and that of literature. Fight or flight is a response to conflict, and it is a conflict itself—the highest kind of drama. Sympathy is the trigger and parasympathy is its resolution. What is autonomic is at once terribly human and a machine, the subconcious and its behavior—the way characters move unflinchingly through their created worlds as if propelled by the inevitable; they touch us, their readers, but we can’t reach into the pages and touch them. What sublime longing that inspires. We can’t protect those characters from danger or their own stupidity, can’t talk sense into them or slap them, can’t help them find the missed letter or dropped handkerchief, can’t kiss them when no one else will. Fight or flight leads directly into the heart of the literary nervous system. It describes what makes literature vital. Because, it bears repeating, sympathy is the trigger.
Minna Zallman Proctor