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8.3. The General Adaptation Syndrome


How To Invent (Almost) Anything > 8. The Motivating Fire > 8.3. The General Adaptation Syndrome

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In 1952, psychologist Hans Selye described the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), more commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ effect. When we perceive a significant threat to us, then our bodies get ready either for a fight to the death or a desperate flight from certain defeat by a clearly superior adversary. It all starts in the back of the hypothalamus and results in:

  • Our senses sharpening. Pupils dilate (open out) so we can see more clearly, even in darkness. Our hairs stand on end, making us more sensitive to our environment (and also making us appear larger, hopefully intimidating our opponent).
  • The cardio-vascular system leaping into action, with the heart pump rate going from one up to five gallons per minutes and our arteries constricting to maximise pressure around the system whilst the veins open out to ease return of blood to the heart.
  • The respiratory system joining in as the lungs, throat and nostrils open up and breathing speeding up to get more air in the system so the increased blood flow can be reoxygenated. The blood carries oxygen to the muscles, allowing them to work harder. Deeper breathing also helps us to scream more loudly!
  • Fat from fatty cells and glucose from the liver being metabolised to create instant energy.
  • Blood vessels to the kidney and digestive system being constricted, effectively shutting down systems that are not essential. A part of this effect is reduction of saliva in the mouth. The bowels and bladder may also open out to reduce the need for other internal actions (this might also dissuade our attackers!).
  • Blood vessels to the skin being constricted reducing any potential blood loss. Sweat glands also open, providing an external cooling liquid to our over-worked system. (this makes the skin look pale and clammy).
  • Endorphins, which are the body's natural pain killers, are released (when you are fighting, you do not want be bothered with pain–that can be put off until later.) The natural judgement system is also turned down and more primitive responses take over–this is a time for action rather than deep thought.

Unfortunately, we are historically too close to the original value of this primitive response for our systems to have evolved to a more appropriate use of it, and many of life’s stresses trigger this response. This includes when a creative new idea makes us feel uncertain about things of which we previously were sure. The biochemical changes in our brain make us aggressive, fighting the new idea, or make us timid, fleeing from it.

In a creative situation, if people start to argue or clam up, this could be a sign of the General Adaptive Syndrome taking effect. Watch out for angry red faces, cold and clammy skin, signs of a dry mouth, increased breathing rates and jitteriness from activated muscles (in yourself, as well as others). If this happens, take a break or otherwise give up the creative efforts until things have calmed down.

If you see people suddenly, uncontrollably laughing at an idea it might just be this response and if so it could just be the idea you are looking for. So go for the ideas that are laughed at! Their brains are telling you that there is something to be scared of!

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