Flight, Fight or Play: War and Peace Revisited


           By Dr. Michael W. Fox 

We share with other animals the genetically programmed survival reactions of flight or fight in response to a perceived threat. These emotive reactions in many species are contagious leading to mass panic stampede or mobbing attack. Such reactivity has been subdued in the process of domesticating animals. We have done a good job in genetically selecting dogs, with a few individual and breed exceptions, to make them more easygoing compared to hypervigilant wild canids.

How well have we accomplished this genetic reprogramming in our own carnivorous and xenophobic specie’s psyche? Those ancient, innate survival instincts to flee or fight seem just beneath the surface of socio-cultural civility and can be easily aroused in many individuals. Domestic violence is all too common. But we would not have survived as long as we have without some effective cultural/environmental controls and genetic selection for empathy, compassion and altruism.

Of course, some instances of aggressive or abnormal behavior are not a question of nature or nurture but of immediate physical cause such as pain, injury, neurologic or endocrine disease and in humans, drug and alcohol abuse. Nature and nurture can influence the severity of such conditions Interference with cognitive processing can result in paranoid, dissociative and delusional psychoses: The “possessed” and the terrified cannot be reasoned with.

Associated with these innate survival reactions are conditioned emotional states of fear, anxiety, panic and phobias. Affected individuals can be indirectly re-programmed genetically to become more stable, trusting and enjoy quality of life with less risk of harming others through behavioral epigenetics. This therapeutic approach can include counter-conditioning, desensitization and other forms of behavioral modification including reward-based redirection and re-motivation.

The therapeutic value of social play has yet to be fully realized since it can help establish bonds of trust and mutual appreciation and enjoyment. For humans this can include non-injurious competitive sports. But the recent politicization of the Olympic Games, a tradition fostering cross-cultural appreciation and respect, has helped dim one hope toward world peace.

But there is hope for dogs of different breeds who have the opportunity to engage in puppy play-groups during their formative months of life. Wholesome food is the best medicine for the body and play is the best medicine for the spirit.

Unfortunately we have gone too far in genetically selecting some breeds of dogs to become hyper-social and dependent, “perpetual puppies”. This is the canine analog of the Williams-Beuren syndrome seen in humans. Such dogs easily become dispirited when left alone, many being prescribed Prozac for separation anxiety. Regrettably, too many dogs live with people whose life-styles and expectations are incompatible with keeping a dog and are neither informed nor always able and willing to improve their animal companion’s quality of life.

Bullying and fighting in cats who live together, along with anxiety-related house-soiling and excessive grooming, are now being ameliorated with drugs such as Prozac ( fluoxetine) and Clomicalm ( clomipramine). But this type of therapy should only be used in conjunction with environmental enrichment and behavior modification and eventually discontinued.

More and more companion animals are now being prescribed various psychotropic medications—anxiolytics, antidepressants and sedatives— to treat various fear/anxiety-based behavioral and cognitive disorders. So are more people, including children, and these drugs are not without harmful side effects including serotonin depletion and serotonin “storms.” Such medications may be an expedient quick fix but over-reliance and neglecting other modes of treatment is surely an abdication of health-care provider responsibility.

Are the medical and veterinary professions on the right path here, drug company profits not withstanding? Behavioral epigenetics and the associated therapeutic tools of mental health care through correcting social and environmental influences, including healthful diets and gut microbiomes, (a source of serotonin) calls for greater involvement of us all, from parents/primary care givers to educators, community and political leaders.


With every age our generic Homo sapiens changes, currently into Homo technos. A more empathic Homo ludens,* a more playful and gentle form of our omnivorous and ofttimes violent primate ancestry and tribal lineages would surely be preferable. I see Homo technos now engaging in computerized Gaming, which has become the internationally competitive and profitable so- called e-sport.

Homo technos will suffer the consequences of electropollution causing us brain and other cancers and annihilating electrosensitive plant and animal species around the world. Neither Homo ludens nor the last of the indigenous peoples and cultures will be spared.

Cell phones, virtual social intercourse and streaming entertainment for all the increasingly disconnected from reality become disassociated as they sit and reconfigure their once opposable and more creative if not expressive thumbs and reprogram their brains with addictive zeal! This cyber-insanity and increasing cyber-insecurity hasten the demise of this Anthropocene age of rampant, what Pope Francis calls, “tyranny, of anthropocentrism”. The next age could be the Ethicocene age, or what Fr. Thomas Berry called the Ecozoic of a more planetary- conscious and responsible humanity.

In play and other activities where there is freedom of spirit, the freedom to be, all animals benefit from the experience and state which is self-rewarding, releasing natural opioids and other feel-good and healing neurochemicals which elevate mood, boost the immune system and endocrine functions and facilitate physical and mental development in the young.

There is creative potential and inventiveness in the freedom to manipulate things and explore during object-oriented “objective” playtime. Scientific objectivity and exploration is an offshoot of this behavior we share with other species who must be good scientists in their own way to survive.

In social play ( “subjective “ play time) we and most animals face and take some risks and there are elements of reversed role-play ( chased and chaser/ fear and aggression) which we equate with humor, sometimes verging on a kind of madness we should embrace as wild abandon; thus testing the limits of our abilities, physical and mental.

The best example of this state, in contrast to the wild disgrace of drunken sports game crowds, is the courtship play rituals of America’s icon, the Bald eagle. The most famous and recognizable of these rituals is the “cartwheel courtship flight,” in which two bald eagles will fly up high, lock talons and then get into a cartwheel spin as they fall toward the ground, breaking apart at the last minute.

I have been treated like a wolf by one whom I socialized, experiencing my face or an arm between her powerful jaws when being affectionately greeted and during social play: and felt the razor-sharp claws of a once feral cat digging and vibrating them on the back of my hand and never leaving a mark as he purred and closed his eyes when I closed mine.

When we can kindle such intimacies with each other and the animals in our lives, we may all rise in spirit from depression and despair, loneliness and sorrow, fear and anger, and fly with eagles in the loving light of mutual trust. * Homo Ludens is the title of a book originally published in Dutch in 1938 by Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga. It discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society. Huizinga suggests that play is primary to and a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture.