Hiding behind the sofa

Sack person from Little Big PlanetMy little niece has just started playing Little Big Planet on the PS3, I’m told she runs for cover when any lava comes on screen. It’s cute.

And it’s strange, isn’t it?

Maybe you don’t think it’s strange, maybe you’re so used to kids hiding behind the sofa that you think it the most pedestrian thing in the world.

I think it’s strange.

And then I think of watching a film though fingers, or turning away during the gruesome bits; it hits me, and I think ‘that’s strange, too’.

Because there is nothing to be frightened of. And we know there is nothing to be frightened of. We experience, again and again, complete safety when we watch these things, when we play these games. We look at toddlers and smile that they’re so scared of the in-game hot lava that they’ll drop the controller and run for safety. At kids who run from the monsters in Doctor Who, as if – we tell ourselves – as if they think the monsters might come out of the TV and get them for real.

As if!

But we know better, we know where the real monsters lie in wait, and we know they’re not in the TV. But still we watch, sometimes, through fingers.

Isn’t it strange?

Why do we do it? Why do they do it? You’ve got to be so careful interpreting what children say – or maybe just as careful as you are with adults, but in a different way; do children understand what you’re asking when you ask if they’re scared of the lava on the screen? Do they understand what they’re saying, when they say ‘yes’? Because of course they are, otherwise they wouldn’t hide! (What peculiar questions these grown ups ask!).

Do you get more specific, and ask them if they’re scared of the lava coming out of the TV and hurting them?

(When I was a kid, I used to be frightened of being upstairs in our house on my own. One of my elder brothers once asked, mockingly, ‘What are you so afraid of? That your toys will come to life and come to get you?!’.

And I thought, ‘well I am now!’).Phrenology head and almonds

Inside your brain you’ve got two ovoid structures called the amygdalae; they’ve got close connection with your two hippocampi, structures which we know are vital for ‘memory’, as we commonly understand the word. The amygdala seems to get especially excited when we’re in danger, or if we perceive a threat. Its close connections with the hippocampus act as a kind of ‘notice this!’ signal, ensuring you remember situations when bad things happened and thus allowing you to avoid them in future.

Undergrad textbooks sometimes take this and conclude that you need the amygdala for fear processing; that the visceral, panic sensation of fear somehow is part of the amygdala’s functioning. Myself, I keep thinking also of the remark in ‘Into the Silent Land‘ that the amygdala is possibly more involved in contextualising fear; thinking of the woman who, deprived of its processing, would stand passive and smiling through a mugging but could also be pinned to the armchair in fear’s grip while watching TV.

(As an aside, the word ‘amygdala’ comes from ancient greek and means ‘almond’, and the amygdala looks like an almond; ‘hippocampus’ comes from the ancient greek ‘hippokampos’, which means sea-horse, and the hippocampus looks nothing like a sea-horse, not even like the crazy-ass sea-horses the Greeks imagined. So long as you remember that anatomical terms either do make sense or do not make sense, you’ll have no problem remembering them)

Often we talk about ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ brain functions; the amygdalae sit at the lower end, apparently driving primal emotional responses which are then modified, modulated and given texture and nuance by the ‘higher’ centres, up and out in the wrinkly cortex. It’s tempting to say that as children we have less control over these ‘lower’ centres – certainly the circuitry of the prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped compared to an adults, and these areas do send many projections deep into the lower processing centres. It’s nice and neat to say that without enough control, or with too much stimulation, or both, our rational selves are displaced, leaving us frightened even when we know we’ve nothing to be scared of.

I’m lured by this explanation, but I’m wary; I’m wary of the Cartesian confusion we can slip into when talking about competing drives and desires inside a single soul; I’m wary of this ‘higher v lower’ dichotomy, which carries so much historical, moralistic baggage. Plato and Freud both thought we had three parts to our selves, which to me seems at least two too many. Besides, as any of my ex’s will attest, I am not good with nice and neat. I don’t trust it; I’ve been let down too many times in the past. Brains are complicated and people even, even more so. Our desires and knowledge and behaviours bleed into one another, from it all we emerge, often unsure of ourselves and our reasons why. We find ourselves on a diet, scooping ice cream into our mouths; promising never to drink again, again; find ourselves watching, frightened and delighted, through tight fingers.

Strange, isn’t it?