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Sixth Sense


I read recently that elephants can detect rain storms from 150 miles away. This is a helpful ability to have in Nambia, where it rains very little. Researchers aren’t exactly sure what the elephants are sensing but suspect that it might be related to their ability to hear very low frequency sounds, since this is also how elephants communicate with one another in herds.

I have been really anxious lately. Sometimes for no reason, which is really annoying. I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes I’m anxious about something that hasn’t happened yet. And it’s not because I’m worrying about something in the future. And it’s not that I’m psychic. I have no idea why I’m feeling anxious. But then something happens, and my anxiety makes sense. Except that the cause and effect is reversed.

I think I might be like an elephant. I think there’s something that I sense that goes beyond the usual 5 senses. I can sense distress from far away. Anxiety, like sound, is also a way that herds communicate. If you are in a pack of gazelles and one of the gazelles in the back sees a lion, it’s not like the gazelle can say, hey everybody! Run for your lives! We are about to be attacked! And whatever means of communication they use has to be instantaneous–like when we break suddenly to avoid hitting a deer. Even though you’re not supposed to do that.

People can feel it when someone is anxious, too. I think that’s why people try to stop other people from feeling. Because they don’t want to feel anxious. And usually the anxiety isn’t adaptive. These days we usually aren’t feeling anxious because we are about to be attacked by wild animals. We’re anxious about something that isn’t life threatening at all–like an interview. Or because we slept through our alarm clock and are running late. Or because we are imagining how we would get to work if we broke our leg without having to call our ex. (I was really worrying about that a few days ago for some reason.)

The problem is, my instinct to move towards the source of distress isn’t like an elephant moving towards water. Moving towards water is adaptive. Moving towards danger is not. If anything, I should be running for my life, like the gazelles.

But then again, there are people who run towards danger. Like the firefighters and police officers in 9/11. In fact, when you talk to someone who has done something heroic, like jump into a river to save a stranger’s life, and you ask them what they were thinking, they say they weren’t thinking anything. They were just responding. So we do need people whose instinct is to run towards danger.

I have always considered myself risk averse, but maybe I’m not when it comes to psychological things. Maybe I’m like a psychological fire fighter. That doesn’t sound so crazy after all.