Imagine this scenario: A man is staring intently at a woman’s body. After a few seconds, he tells her, “Hey, squeeze your butt.” Should the woman –
- Ignore him
- Call the po-po
- Give him a roundhouse to the face
- Nod appreciatively and squeeze her butt
If you’re a fiery woman like myself (#gallofire), you probably immediately chose option c – roundhouse to the face. Especially if it’s the sort of situation where the woman was at work and the man was some leering co-worker. I might choose option b if the woman was walking to her car at night and the man reeked of alcohol or some illicit substance. Option a would probably be best if the woman is walking down the street, and the man is yelling out of his car window. Option d is clearly NEVER the appropriate response.. or is it??
Imagine now a very different environment from all the ones I mentioned above. The man and woman are at a gym, they know each other, and the woman is paying the man to train her to be a magnificent beast of lean, mean muscle. Part of his job involves watching her closely as she performs different exercises, and telling her when she really needs to rev up her glute activation to perform various exercises. Now, in this very different context, not only should she not be offended, fearful, or activate her ninja mode, she should be grateful that he is performing his job correctly.
So look over options a-d again. They are all very different actions, all appropriate at one time or another, to the exact same event. The main factor that determines the appropriateness of each action is the context of the situation.
What helps us use context flexibly, at the millisecond timescale, to figure out the most appropriate action?
Enter one of the most magnificent brain structures of all time, the hippocampus! You actually have two, each one close to your ears, a few millimeters deep in the brain. The hippocampus doesn’t just ‘do’* one thing – it is most known for its role in memory – but one function it is undisputedly crucial for is taking in info about single ‘items’ (the man) or events (the man telling the woman to squeeze her butt), and incorporating them into the context (the workplace, parking lot at night, street, gym). These item-context associations are super important to send along to other brain regions to use to select the appropriate action (roundhouse, call po-po, ignore, nod ‘n squeeze).
You should also appreciate that the brain does this automatically and instantly. When my trainer tells me to squeeze my glutes, I don’t have to pause for 30 seconds, ponder through all the possible range of responses, mindfully take in my context, and then select an action. Instead, I choose option d – nod appreciatively and squeeze my glutes. I’ve never come close to giving him a roundhouse to the face. Amazing.
The real, every-day importance of the hippocampus is especially visible when the hippocampus stops functioning properly, as in Alzheimer’s disease**. Once the disease progresses so far, people with Alzheimer’s disease are no longer able to respond to individual items and events in a context appropriate way. That may be one reason why they make inappropro innuendo with the voluptuous waitress, or offend the ears of their innocent grand-chillin’ with a string of foul language. Their hippocampi are becoming dysfunctional, and are less able to help them take in the item/event with the context so they can act appropriately.
So don’t take your hippocampus for granted – protect it by eating less brownies, and exercise like a beast. You don’t want to be that person who attacks their trainer for just doing their job. How embarrassing.
Oh hippocampus, thank you for all that you do. ❤
TAKE NOTE: If anyone says anything about squeezing my butt outside of the trainer-at-the-gym context, you WILL get a roundhouse to the face!!!
— EDITORIAL NOTES —
*Practically no brain structure ‘does’ one thing, or does it by itself. If you cut out the hippocampus and set it on the table, it wouldn’t ‘remember’ anything. It’s crucially interconnected with a network of other brain regions that it receives info from and sends info to.
**Alzheimer’s disease affects many brain regions, and other brain regions are also involved in appropriate behavior (e.g. prefrontal cortex). But, the hippocampus is one of the first and most severely affected in Alzheimer’s disease, fo’ sho’, and it engages in intimate pillow talks with the other brain regions involved in appropriate behavior as well.
— I AIN’T MAKIN STUFF UP —