Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!
July 30, 2008 7:11 AM   Subscribe

The thought or visuals of old people falling sends literal shivers down my spine. What's going on, psycho-bio-neuro-logically? What causes a physical reaction to an unpleasant idea? This seems deeply wired, is it "innate" in the brain?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed to Health & Fitness (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think that would be called a "cringe."
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:18 AM on July 30, 2008

A big part of empathy lies in responding to what's happening to another by, at some level (probably usually unconsciously), imagining it happening to one's self--people brains do indeed have a lot of so-called mirror neurons. The mechanics on how exactly they support imitation and learning and empathy aren't clear (like most of brain science; it's a marvelous squishy mysterious thing after all), but seems likely enough.

So, yeah--it's something pretty innate to a normal brain. Witnessing an unpleasant or harmful thing tends to kick in physical responses; spine-tingling is one of those. If people weren't mostly hairless apes, that'd make your hackles raise, making you look more threatening. Which, granted, isn't going to really scare a slippery sidewalk, but the brain does a lot of rule-of-thumb things very quickly in the better safe than sorry principle.
posted by Drastic at 7:42 AM on July 30, 2008

People have dreams about their own teeth falling out for a similar reason--the decay and brittleness of the body is part of aging, and taps into our fears of death. You might be projecting that human anxiety of growing decrepit and vulnerable upon other people. On a literal note, I live in NYC and always feel compelled to follow elderly people as they walk up the stairs in case they trip and fall. At that age, a tumble that would just sprain my ankle could be fatal to them.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:42 AM on July 30, 2008

It's pretty well-ingrained in your brain, evolutionarily. Mirror neurons are part of it. That's the empathy acting after your visual system feeds the information to your brain and you comprehend that the person's falling. Your own experience with falling will affect how bad you feel about it.
posted by kldickson at 11:29 AM on July 30, 2008

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