top of page

Good reasons for bad feelings -the smoke detector with Dr Randolph Nesse Professor and Psychiatrist.

We can learn about social anxiety and the smoke detector in our brain and learn how to reset it when it is making us unwell.

Dr Randolph Nesse is a pioneer in evolutionary medicine. After treating patients for anxiety and mood disorders, he discovered that there are really good reasons why we end up with bad feelings. It is all about our genes and how they have helped us to survive over time. He discusses how social anxiety affects many people. We talk about the reasons why. We have developed special parts of the brain designed to make us socially connected and to belong to a group. His books examine aim to discover why mental health disorders exist to make psychiatry more effective. Our need to belong to a group or tribe or society has been fundamental to our survival as a species over millions of years of history. Inside the brain there are places designed to make us feel under threat or feel safe.

Listen to our conversation on Episode #87 of the Thriving Minds podcast.

Link here:


  1. We have good reasons for our bad feelings. There is nothing wrong with us.

  2. Social anxiety is one of the main reasons that sets off the smoke detector in the brain

  3. Because being part of a social group or a starling in a murmuration or a person in a mexican wave matters for our survival

  4. We understand how this happens, physics shows -one particle under the right conditions becomes a snowflake

  5. When 20-35 people standing up and then down at the right time and speed in a stadium- becomes a mexican wave

  6. Large number of starlings gather and it becomes a murmuration

  7. When we face a dangerous situation, the neurons in the brain come together quickly and activate the "smoke detector" to keep us safe from danger

  8. Similarly public speaking, meeting a new person, standing in a crowd, can also send off the smoke detector

  9. As Dr Nesse says, understanding the "smoke detector" helps with managing social anxiety by practicing and learning how to hit the reset button on our smoke detector



Think of a situation when you enter a room or have to give a talk in front of people and you feel anxious, with increased heart rate and breathing, a sense of panic comes over you. It is like a smoke detector going off from a burnt piece of toast. In this case, it is your brain's smoke detector, a place designed from millions of years of history, sounding the alarm, and setting up the systems to get away from danger. It is a cheap system, or neural circuit, that activates in milliseconds- quick get out of here. When this happens, run away from the situation or sit still and hope no-one notices you.

Dr Ness describes in his paper called "The Smoke Detector Principle" Link to his paper here.
Nesse Defensive Responses
Download PDF • 223KB


"In Descent of Man, Darwin argued that human morality had evolved from the social instincts of animals, especially the bonds of sympathy and love. Darwin gathered observations over many decades on animal behavior: the heroic sacrifices of social insects, the tender bonds of affection between female apes and their offspring, the courage and loyalty of dogs for their masters. Cooperation and regard for others were beneficial to animal communities as a whole, and helped them to survive in the battle for life".

Listen to Baba Brinkman rap about Dr Nesse's book here. Fabulous way that he makes this book accessible to everyone using music.

Why birds of a feather flock together- Murmuration

Highly recommend viewing this extraordinary video that shows 300,000 starlings moving together in a movement termed "murmuration" to protect themselves from all types of predators in the wild. It is extraordinary demonstration of the development of the nervous system for connection and survival. It is a stunning and extraordinary example of social cognition.



Like all advances in science, murmurations are now being studied. In contrast, to what we infer from biology, it seems that the flying patterns of birds or murmurations can be understood through physics, In fact, there are new suggestions that murmurations follow the same laws as when crystals form, and avalanches. They live "on the edge" and are transformed in an instant.



Doesn't the starling murmuration remind you of a "wave" in a sports stadium?

In fact, this has been studied by Illes Farkas, Tamas Vicsek and Dirk Helbing by analyzing more than a dozen waves and published in Nature in 2002. Just like the particles in a snowflake that were obeying a few simple rules and ended up creating a seemingly complex phenomenon — snowflakes, for example.

In the stadium wave- see the youtube video. They found that each stadium wave in most cases is clockwise, at a speed of about 20 seats per second, and most surprisingly the wave was triggered by as few as 20, 30 or 35 people.

The "wave" depended on:

  • the distance between audience members,

  • how many neighbours an audience member could see

  • the readiness, or probability, of an individual to start standing up, assuming that others nearby are already standing."

Mexican Wave is triggered by as little as 25-35 people

mexican wave paper
Download PDF • 369KB


25-40 people to trigger the wave



A more detailed look at the Milky Way suggests that it is rather like a Mexican wave rather than flat disc and a murmuration. As we strive to understand why we do what we do- understanding where it all started helps to move forward. We can learn to reset the smoke detector when it is not serving us.


Social contact and nature are some of the ways to start to press the reset button on the smoke detector.

Meet Dr Nesse MD

Randolph M. Nesse, MD is Research Professor of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, where he became the Founding Director of the Center for Evolution Medicine in 2014. He was previously Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan where he led the Evolution and Human Adaptation Program and helped to establish one of the first anxiety disorders clinics. His research on the neuroendocrinology of anxiety evolved into studies on why aging exists. Those studies led to collaboration with the evolutionary biologist George Williams on Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, a book that initiated much new work in the field of evolutionary medicine. His research is on how selection shapes mechanisms that regulate defenses such as pain, fever, anxiety and low mood, and how social selection shaped human capacities for morality. His larger mission is to establish evolutionary biology as a basic science for medicine. Dr. Nesse is the Founding President of the International Society for Evolution, Medicine & Public Health, a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Sciences, and an elected Fellow of the AAAS. His new book, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry shows how asking evolutionary questions about why mental disorders exist can make psychiatry more effective.

Learn more about Dr Nesse and his books at his website.

92 views0 comments


bottom of page