I have a professor who, in a lecture, briefly describes the neurophysiology of the "fight-or-flight" response. She states "in the hierarchy of information processing, emotional data override conscious thought. However, the amygdala is closer to the thalamus and receives the information before the sensory cortex. Sensory receptors send information to the thalamus, where further processing takes place before the information is sent simultaneously to the sensory cortex, and the amygdala and hippocampus. If the amygdala perceives the information to be threatening, the amygdala immediately initiates fight or flight mechanisms in the limbic system and the information never makes it to your sensory cortex.”

To illustrate, she gives an example of "a teacher who has just called on you asking for an answer to a question you don't know."

Her concern here is to demonstrate that a student can feel so threatened in classroom situations that they initiate a fight or flight response.

I do not argue with the idea that a student could feel extremely threatened in such a situation, and have a very strong emotional response. However, I contend that such a case—-a response to a teacher asking a question--could not be an example of the fight or flight response, which evolved to facilitate survival in the face of extreme physical danger, and mechanistically, does not involve higher-processing centers.

Yet, the situation in which a human understands a question, and the social circumstances in which it is asked, necessarily involves higher-structure processing. You can’t feel a threat if you don’t process the language first, or have a process for considering what other people might be thinking about you. Therefore, since the fight or flight response is initiated purely by more primitive processing, the example of the classroom question cannot be a stimulus for a true fight-or-flight response. I’m not saying that some sort of process doesn’t happen that involves stress and the amygdala, and the limbic system—strong emotions—but in the case of a question the response is mediated by higher structures.

Let me try to summarize my argument like this:

(1) understanding someone’s question requires higher-structure processing,

(2) already being at higher-structure processing, and at the level of consciousness, the neural pathway does not suddenly become completely non conscious and generate a purely primitive response (and even if it does, it is not purely a fight or flight response, because that is an entirely non-conscious pathway)

(3) the fight-or-flight behavior is a primitive-structure pathway involving the amygdala, shutting out higher-structure processing, which is a response to a physical threat and immediate physical action (no conscious, higher structure mediation)—fight or run.

If there is higher-structure interpretation necessary to understand the question, and/or higher-structure interpretation to feel uncomfortable about how other people think of one when one responds, then the behavior cannot involve fight or flight because that is a non-conscious, primitive-level pathway.

I would like confirmation that I am correct in my argument, and the professor's example, of the student being asked a question, can not possibly be an example of true fight-or-flight.


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