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
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"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.