Thursday, February 7, 2008

Danger State

CS Harris had quite the terrifying near-miss today. Odd creatures that we are, throughout the danger she's got her writer's hat on, posing this question:

So how do writers of books filled with shootings, explosions, chases, etc, avoid falling into cardiopulmonary hyperbole while still giving readers a realistic description of the effect of these incidents on their characters?

When the human animal is placed in perceived danger (I don't know about you, but my heart started racing when I saw that graphic up top!), two squidgy sacs on top of the kidneys dump adrenaline and noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine) into the bloodstream. For a good description of the physical effects: read this article. For a good description of the mental effects, you might try this one. Since this is neither an anatomy lesson nor a psychological one, I'm going to stick with write-about-able descriptions.

In my experience, there are three main sorts of perceived danger, each with different reactions:

Sudden danger: Anything from a car crash or mugging to someone jumping out of a closet and going 'BOO'. When you are in sudden danger, the adrenaline dump is sudden and complete. Time slows. Perception brightens and intensifies, but memory fragments and distorts. Pain ceases to exist. Our bodies may react without our brains being engaged. Or we may find ourselves unable to react at all. More on that later.

Do NOT write about the pounding heart in these moments. Yes, that noble pump is indeed working hard in these moments. Your blood pressure is likely to be through the roof. Thing is, you're not likely to be aware of it. Those of our ancestors who reacted to the bear attack by jumping into trees or yelling and swinging sticks survived to reproduce. Those who stood there going, 'wow, heart hammering in Ogg's chest' did not.

So what's a writer to do?

-Write instead about the time slow (a neurochemical effect).
-About the cold skin and numb lips (as blood flees the skin for the skeletal muscles).
-About the sudden bright colors (pupil dilation and neurochemistry both), or the way color will tend to blue at the edges of vision.

-I have often had black spots crowd at my periphery and the sensation of blood slowly thumping in my ears. Slowly? Yeah: my pulse might have been over 180, but with your time-sense shaved down to zillionths of a second, everything's going slowly!

Aftermath: Your body idles down. That sudden racing heart gradually returns to normal. Your brain reacquires the ability to perceive past and future (fear and rage are all about the present!) and struggles to make sense of what just happened. You begin paying your oxygen debt - with interest. And the shakes, oh yes, the shakes...

Persistent Danger: Think back to every child's favorite game of predator and prey, tag. Whether you're it or not it, you're in a heightened adrenalized state for an extended period. Your body adjusts, and it also feels the effects of the effort.

Chasing or being chased, be it in a car, on a sports field or through a misty wood in the middle of the night) our bodies are in a sustained and heightened adrenaline state. If Sudden Danger is the equivalent of nitrous oxide on our metabolic engines, Persistent Danger is like running at the top end of the tach in every gear. The effects are still there, but not as pronounced.

THIS is the place for that pounding heart, and that struggle for breath. Sudden Danger, you don't know what the effort cost until it's over. Persistent Danger, your body's having to pay as it goes, muscles starving for oxygen and drowning in their own acids. How much you can pay (how long you can stay in this state) depends on what kind of shape you're in. A professional rugby or soccer player can run up and down the field for two hours straight. An overweight and sedentary smoker might keel over running down the block.

Aftermath: Sore and burning muscles (those acids) and a milder case of the shakes are pretty normal. How much or how little depend on how prepared you are for these sorts of events.

Perceived Danger: Remember hide and seek? Hunkered down in your hiding place, knowing the predator was coming, knowing that at any moment you might have to burst into action?

Your metabolic engine was racing hard, but you were stuck in neutral. All that adrenalin was pinging around your system, but there was nowhere for it to go. Couldn't fight, couldn't flee. But you had to be ready for both.

Sadly, too many of us live in this state. I mean, it's one thing if you live in a war zone where snipers and land mines are a constant danger, but for most of us the dangers we work ourselves into a froth over are illusory: being late, not ticking off items on a 'to-do' list, anything that happens in an office.

Aftermath: In a way, this is the most dangerous possible adrenalin state. Your body is marvellously adaptable, and if you convince it that you are in constant danger, it will adapt, and you will pay. High blood pressure, ulcers and heart disease on the physical side and post-traumatic stress on the mental.

One more important thing about writing the adrenaline:

Personalities: One important word was perceived danger. Life prepares us for different kinds and levels of stress. The severity of our adrenalin boost is moderated by how badly we think we need it.

Also, some people simply react differently. Some instinctively fight, some instinctively flee. And some instinctively freeze and hide. I think evolution gives gives us this range, so that whichever is appropriate keeps the race going.

Training and repeated exposure can influence these reactions, turn what might be a big shock to one person into pretty normal for another. But when a new shock is faced, that primal instinct may kick in. A fireman running into a burning building will be in a heightened state, but (let us all hope) he or she won't be freaking out. On the other hand, that same fireman finds a homeless person frozen to death in their doorway, the reaction might be quite a bit different.


Charles Gramlich said...

Good differentiation between the types of fear. This would make a great article for the Illuminata, or some other writing mag.

I couldn't help but think, though, that "Ogg" was like the first writer. I guess our particular skill set only became adaptive or semi-adaptive much later in human evolutionary history. LOL

cs harris said...

Absolutely brilliant, Steve. I've also been wondering about the ways the physical reactions of one person might differ from those of others in exactly the same situation. I know as I've aged, I seem to react more. I mean, I got broadsided by a truck in France when I was in my twenties (lots of cuts and bruises, but I walked away), and I don't think my fear was as intense as what I experienced the other night. Then again, maybe the experience of that truck heightened the new fear!

Sphinx Ink said...

Another great post, Steve. Excellent analysis of a subject that's vital to most writers, especially those of us trying to write stories full of suspense and thrills.

Re C.S. Harris' comment about how much more fearful she is now than when she was younger, I think that's true of all of us as we age.

Survival = knowing what to fear

The fearless are less likely to survive to old age. We admire their bravery and courage, without wanting to emulate it!

Steve Malley said...

Charles, glad you think so! Ogg may not have survived to tell tales, but his brother Thag probably started the trend, verbally reliving his traumas as a way to rewrite the bright and jangled disorder of the amygdala to the more stable and less upsetting cerebellum.

CS, I seem to be headed the opposite way. I was a terrified child and teen, but very little scares me now. In the last few years I've jumped off high things, fronted off bikers on meth, gone white-water rafting without the raft and let strangers read my work! Little more than heightened excitement...

Sphinx, you may have a point. I think my own fear helped me survive to my present advanced years. Doesn't bode well for my dotage, does it?!

Lana Gramlich said...

Gads, Steve! That photo is so horrible! You should have warned me, man--I just ate!

Bernita said...

Thank you. You may have saved me from a logic error.

I suspect that pregnancy may affect the adrenaline response.
When I was eight months pregnant my husband cut open his thigh with a power saw. He just missed the femoral artery, and staggered in all bloody. It didn't phase me in the slightest, just told him to lie down before he fell down and phoned for help.
Of course, this is purely anecdotal, but I wonder if it's possible that, unless something directly threatens the infant in embryo,many women in late pregnancy are relatively immune to excitement.

Shauna Roberts said...

Excellent post, Steve. I waited to comment because I wanted time to absorb it.

Like you, I have become less fearful as I've aged. I suspect this trait may vary among us depending on the personalities we were born with, the efforts we've made to overcome fears, and how many threats we've had to face during our lives.

One interesting tidbit related to your discussion of danger states: People in acute severe pain show a variety of external signs (sweating, pupil dilation, elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, grimacing, moaning, etc.) that nurses and doctors recognize as indicators of pain. People who have chronic severe pain lose these signs, to the extent that medical personnel don't believe them. Apparently, the body can't sustain high arousal of the nervous system arousal indefinitely and adapts to the state of being in severe pain.