Fight or Flight

by Anna Krien

The irukandji jellyfish, found in the northeast waters of Australia, is tinier than the head of a matchstick. It is almost impossible to see, but its effects on the human nervous system are as horrifying as say, a great white shark were circling. Likened to a bad LSD trip, scientists say the unknowing victims of the irukandji experience not only searing pain but also an overwhelming sense of fear and doom. Victims have been known to sprint down the beach screaming as if death itself were chasing them, their exertion rushing the poison to their heart and killing them. A lifesaver stung by the irukandji was found in the public toilet block with his arms wrapped around the toilet and bawling – ambulance officers had to pry him away from the toilet bowl. 

Most fear is believed to stem from an experience – as least that is how the Freudian psychoanalytical movement viewed irrational fears, that they are a result of something repressed – be it a memory or a desire. But does this fear, a chemical release triggered by the irukandji jellyfish, create the same experience for every one of us? Or is everyone’s experience of impending doom different?

Fight or Flight is a series of new works on paper and vintage book covers by artist Tai Snaith. Combining collage and drawing in a makeshift bomb shelter, these detailed works explore ideas of survival, animal instinct and a sense of impending doom. She considers the possibility of harboring old books as if it this dugout shelter were a study retreat for the mind to mess with the intelligentsia of an old and doomed world. And yet, despite the finality of most ‘end of world’ scenarios, there is a comic sense of play and the absurd as Snaith’s mind seems to wander, as one’s would inside a bomb shelter when the novelty of impending doom wears off. Like a child will infuriate their parents by scribbling over the faces of politicians in today’s newspaper (turning the prime minister into a drag queen or drawing boobs on a footballer, if I remember correctly), Snaith boldly etches her own vision onto the old – reinventing the past whilst waiting for some unknown doom to unlock the latch to her hidey-hole.

The term ‘Fight or Flight’ has become a somewhat commonplace and flippant piece of information amongst humans. What was once a seminal theory is referred to repeatedly, often without a true understanding of Walter Cannon’s discovery or the adaptations he later made to his thesis. We know ‘fight or flight’ is the response in an animal’s brain when faced with a threat, but what we forget is that when faced with danger, we seem to neither fight or runaway – rather, like chameleons, many of us try to disappear. You may experience this on the train or tram, when a man, psyched and leering for a fight, scans the carriage trying to catch someone’s eyes. Those of us keen on self-preservation will studiously avoid meeting his eyes. We will try not to stand out.

Charles Darwin wrote that “fear is the most depressing of all emotions” as he discussed scared animals literally depressing themselves by flattening their ears and crouching close to the ground. Yet, while wild animals might react this way to conserve energy – not wanting to ‘fight or flight’ without necessity - humans tend to stay still out of social restraint. The recent bushfires in Victoria this year is an example of just how dulled our primal instincts have become. Journalists wrote of people in the direct line of fire on Black Saturday paralysed by complacency, tourists even took photos of the black furls of smoke coming toward them before returning poolside. Drinks were still being poured at a wedding banquet as staff outside threw buckets of water on the reception centre.

And while many of us ignore these very real threats of fire and climate change, there is an increase of social phobias in the Western world – people experience survival responses on a crowded tram or in a supermarket queue. Panicking like birds trapped inside a house, we bang ourselves against the windows of our very own society. For us, it seems there are other influences beyond experience and instinct involved in fear. We have the unfortunate gift of anticipation and imagination. We dread things that might happen - things that are less likely to happen to us such as snakebite or drink spiking or a plane crash than say an ordinary car accident or a fatal melanoma. Because we have read about it, seen it on TV or been told about it, we can’t help but dread it.

It is strange how little we contemplate the remnants of animal instinct we retain under our own skins, we tend to either dress up this intuition as human intelligence or disguise it with medical technology. In fact some of us seem so intent on disconnecting ourselves to these primal instincts that doctors will conduct surgery - such as clipping a small segment of involuntary nerves - to stop surges of intense blushing. As far as science currently knows, blushing is unique to humans, a response from part of our nervous system that prepares the body for action in a fight or flight situation.

But the question remains – why do our bodies undermine us?

Red-faced, we inform others that we may be feeling vulnerable, lying or deceiving ourselves – often in spite of our wishes to do so. Perhaps our bodies - our so-called human intelligence - are trying to tell us there is more than ‘fight or flight’? Which returns us to Tai Snaith’s apocalyptic shelter. While a bomb shelter is commonly seen as icons of doom, there is a sense of resilience in Snaith’s accompanying artwork. Her creations refuse to be spooked – they are unable to fully retreat from the world, regardless of whether it still exists or turned into a wasteland. Rather Snaith seeks to recreate the world by decorating this underground den with signs of life.

At the beginning of this century, American psychologist Shelley Taylor introduced an alternative response model to danger. Not disproving ‘Fight or Flight’ response, Taylor suggested that it was not the only response available to us. She called the alternative ‘the Tend and Befriend’ response, where animals (including humans) managed threats and stressful encounters by seeking social support and tending to their offspring. Often prevalent among the females of a species and in particular, among primates whose offspring are typically helpless, these creatures can neither attack a predator for fear of being wounded and unable to care for their offspring, nor can they run away without leaving their kin behind. Instead they tend to their offspring and befriend a community, within which they can be protected by sheer volume of numbers.

There is a sense of Tend and Befriend in Tai Snaith’s shelter. To begin with, she has invited us inside it. And while many us think bomb shelters belong in the future, we are wrong. There are thousands of individuals already inside their secret hidey-holes, people bunkering down for the apocalypse. Army disposal shops are inundated with people preparing for the end of the world. The difference between these shelters - often dug out in suburban backyards, state forests, cities and abandoned old towns – and Snaith’s shelter is that she hasn’t really given up. Instead of destruction and stasis, the resident of this den seems hell-bent on creation.