Leopard confronts a baboon, Botswana   Photo: John Dominis for Time/Life (1966)

Leopard confronts a baboon, Botswana
Photo: John Dominis for Time/Life (1966)

Reason depends on a constant supply of material from our pre-rational, animal nature—from perception, feeling, and natural desires. There is also an intermediate level of automatic judgment, some of it learned through experience, that operates more quickly than conscious reasoning and is essential for navigating the world in real time. The relation among these faculties is complicated. Even when we think we are using reason to arrive at the right answer to some factual or practical question—taking the relevant data consciously into account—our reasoning may be influenced more directly, without our knowledge, by the instinctive forces with which it coexists.
— Thomas Nagel: Reason, Almost. Critical review of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. New Republic: January 24, 2012.
Image: Biological Sciences:    Pearson Prentice Hall,    2005.

Image: Biological Sciences: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.


Here are four lighthearted tasks each paired with a generative question. Proceed sequentially without revealing what is to come next. Read out the instructions for each task; ensuring that students start and finish together. After each activity, challenge them with the generative question. Lively discussion should ensue; but keep it on topic, and do not lose theatrical momentum.

TASK I: Close your eyes and hold your breath for a full 90 seconds.
QUESTION: Why is it impossible to commit suicide by simply holding your breath?

TASK II: Conduct a staring contest with your partner. The first one to blink is the loser. Try it three times.
QUESTION: What is the difference between a blink and a wink?

TASK III: Inhale to your maximum capacity. Wait seven seconds; then exhale completely, emptying your lungs to the fullest extent possible.  
QUESTION: How is deliberate hyperventilation different from regular relaxed breathing? To what extent is breathing under conscious control?

TASK IV: Some advanced yoga practitioners claim to be able to lower their heart rate slightly by sheer concentration of the mind. Try it yourself for a few minutes. Measure your success by monitoring your own your pulse rate.
QUESTION: What real-life scenarios that you know have caused your resting heart rate to accelerate?  Make a mental list of seven of them.


In the Intuition Anonymous unit we talked about trusting your gut. This ranged from extremes like relying on instincts in potentially life or death situations, to much less perilous scenarios like overcoming stage fright or otherwise using nervous energy in positive ways. Our animal nature has equipped us with a range of early warning survival devices.  They work in mysterious ways. A nuanced aspect of this might be the strange, and difficult to define, instant feeling that something is "not quite right" when entering a place or social situation.

This last, more enigmatic, aspect has been labelled "the 6th sense." Although we might agree with the spirit of this term, and cannot ignore its ubiquitous, colloquial use; we should keep "balance" and "proprioception" in mind, as deserving full status alongside the traditional five Aristotelian senses. We explored this in the Seven not five senses? unit! 

A close reading of the Thomas Nagel quote is worthwhile at this juncture. Ask a student volunteer to read it. Nagel articulates some of the nuanced complexity, interplay and mystery of our intuitive gifts whilst remaining firmly rooted in neuroscience. It is worth mentioning that we encountered Nagel before in the Umwelt unit of inquiry. Nagel was the philosopher who asked "What is it like to be a bat?"

What follows is an overview of our the famous "fight or flight" response. It should become immediately apparent to students that the instantaneous release into the bloodstream, and simultaneous multifarious actions, of a chemical messenger, itself originating from anonymous glands sitting on top of the kidneys, must be well below the realm of conscious, rational control.  



Icons evoking some Fight or Flight responses.    Image: Jvnkfood

Icons evoking some Fight or Flight responses.
Image: Jvnkfood

The fight or flight response is triggered by environmental cues that indicate possible threat or danger. These cues are picked up by the senses and processed instantly in the brain. Everyone in the room will be familiar with the surge of the adrenalin that follows:

  • What does the sudden release of adrenalin actually feel like in the moment? What are some of its obvious physiological effects?

  • What situations do you recall that triggered large or small "fight or flight" responses. Were they fight, flight, or both? How long did the feeling last?

The fight or flight response more or less corresponds to the need for instant violent muscular action. Adrenalin acts on almost all body tissues; especially muscles of various kinds and cells that release glucose for a rapid boost of energy.  

Adrenalin effects include: acceleration of heart and lung ventilation; paling or flushing, especially of the face by constricting or dilating capillaries; inhibition of stomach action; relaxation of sphincters; liberation of metabolic fat and glycogen; inhibition of tears and saliva production; dilation of pupil and accentuated tunnel vision; relaxation of the bladder; inhibition of sexual desire; hearing loss; shaking; erection of the hair on the neck and back; and faster blood clotting.

  • How many of the effects described in this paragraph involve muscles (be specific)?

  • To what extent is it efficient to trigger the cascade of fight or flight responses by a single chemical messenger, rather than direct neural connections?

  • "Red with rage," "white as a sheet," "quaking with fear," "a tingle down the spine," and "hackles raised on the back of the neck": where do these idioms come from? Can you think of others in different languages that you know?

  • In what situation would more efficient blood clotting be a welcome addition of your innate fight or flight survival package?


Just for fun, ask students to examine the nine colored fight or flight icons above. Have them design their own icons for any fight or flight aspects mentioned in the paragraph that are missing. Printable pdf. of the quote, paragraph, questions and nine icons.

End the session by asking students to do some reflection. Have them think again about their own mysterious, intuitive, so-called, "6th sense."

To what extent are feelings of premonition, of something being not quite right, or sense of impending doom, best explained by innate early warning mechanisms triggered automatically in threat situations?

Students should refer back to the Tip of the iceberg metaphor for what lies below conscious awareness. At this point the TOK class will be sufficiently primed for the Cognitive bias unit of inquiry. 

The generative question that accompanied Task IV in the first class activity on this page asked students to keep in mind a mental list of seven scenarios. This is a foreshadowing of The unreliability of eyewitness reporting unit in Memory as a Way of Knowing. 

"Ball and stick" model/map of the adrenalin molecule.   Rest (somewhat) assured that this elegant arrangement, of 9 carbon atoms, 3 oxygen atoms, 13 hydrogen atoms and a single nitrogen atom, will optimize your survival in what poet Alfred Lord Tennyson referred to as "Nature, red in tooth and claw."

"Ball and stick" model/map of the adrenalin molecule.
Rest (somewhat) assured that this elegant arrangement, of 9 carbon atoms, 3 oxygen atoms, 13 hydrogen atoms and a single nitrogen atom, will optimize your survival in what poet Alfred Lord Tennyson referred to as "Nature, red in tooth and claw."