It's a jungle out there...

A chimp sits in a jungle clearing grooming another member of his whoop in the sun. There's a rustle in the trees nearby. What happens next?

If we approach this question from an evolutionary standpoint, we can make a good guess quickly. But let's extend the story. Say there are two chimps grooming. One reacts quickly to the rustle, his instinctive psychobiological reactions ready body and mind to either run away... or stand and fight. The other chimp, by contrast, reacts as if the rustle is just wind in the leaves.

Let's run the scenario forwards with the two possible outcomes.

1) It's just wind in the leaves. The chimp who reacts to it as a threat is on high alert for a few moments but soon realises it's a benign rustle and returns to grooming. His only downside is the loss of a few wasted calories of energy. The unreactive chimp, by contrast, saves those calories.

2) It's an angry alpha males from another whoop after territory, food or sexual partners. He attacks. But the chimp who reacted quickly has the edge. His physiological systems are ready to scrap or scarper. So he escapes... leaving the unreactive chimp in the teeth of a serious threat and catching up late to a nasty situation. It doesn't end well for him

Put this in arithmetical terms and it pans out with this outcome table of possible benefit/loss:


  1. Does react + Is threat = +5 (ie. likely survival in the face of serious threat)
  2. Does react + Isn't threat = -0.2 (ie. loses a few calories)

  1. Doesn't react + Isn't threat = +0.2 (ie. nothing lost, nothing gained)
  2. Doesn't react + Is threat = -10 (ie potential loss of life or territory etc)

It's pretty stark.

Say that 9 times out of ten, it's wind in the leaves.

If we run that through the outcome table, the unreactive chimp gets (9 x 0.2)-10 = -8.2. The reactive chimp gets (9 x -0.2)+5 = +3.2

A net difference of 11.4 in favour of reacting over not reacting.

So, this is how we evolved. Now my illustration is highly flawed because the development of the split nervous system that responds autonomically to threats by readying us for action developed a long, long, long time before humans, neanderthals, chimps and mammals. In fact, evolutionary biology suggests that it may have been Cnidaria (jellyfish) who had the first basic split firing different action potentials.

So, let's wind forward again. Every human has a sympathetic nervous system, which engages when we detect threat and ready ourselves for action. We also have a parasympathetic nervous system which turns us back to 'rest and digest'. The two are in constant action, second by second, and in a well-adapted organism there is a lot of interplay between them. In effect, turning us 'on' and 'off' throughout every day.

The issue with humans is that we are self-aware and have language. We can remember scenarios in detail. We can rehearse scenarios in the future. We can create stress for ourselves out of nowhere. We are not just reacting to our environmental threats... both our conscious and unconscious can interrupt and put our bodies into 'fight or flight' mode.

As a result, our ability to recuperate well in the 'rest and digest' mode that parasympathetic dominance promotes can be affected in ways that can threaten our mental and physical health.

Heart rate variability is a window into this balance and the reason Adeki is so passionate about using it to help people achieve their true potential.

So the lesson is: it IS a jungle out there. We can't change how our brains and nervous systems and our bodies react to threats (perceived or real) but we CAN change how we intervene and work to help that balance become more healthy.

Just don't delay... you never know what that rustle in the trees of your life might be.

Adrian WebbComment