Monique Keiran: Disasters drag us back to basic instincts

We can’t help ourselves, it seems. Every time disaster strikes, we humans feel compelled to watch. Once. Twice. Again. And again. And again.

It’s as if by looping through the experience vicariously, we’re trying to imprint on our brains the images we find horrifying.

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Yet weirdly and somewhat twistedly, we’re mesmerized by those images, too.

I’m speaking, of course, of last week’s pictures from Alberta and southeastern B.C.: of houses swept under bridges, towns and cities sitting deep in water, cats and their people swimming across raging rivers that were once roadways.

I’m also talking of accidents we encounter on the highway. Most of us take a good look as we crawl by at 20 km/h. Some of us whip out smart phones and record the scene to share with others over the Internet or TV.

I speak, too, of the images from Oklahoma’s tornado earlier this month, the videos of New York City substations blowing up during Hurricane Sandy, the shots of boats being swept over the Tohoku breakwater in Japan … Christchurch’s shattered downtown … Australia’s burning countryside… .

Many of us stationed ourselves in front of our televisions for hours on Sept. 11, 2001, witnessing from thousands of kilometres away the burning of the World Trade Center. The towers fell just once in New York City, but they fell hundreds of thousands — maybe millions — of times, in living rooms around the world over the months following that event.

And that was before YouTube and FaceBook dominated our free time and our screen time. Now we can see images of catastrophe any time and from almost everywhere.

Disaster captures and keeps our attention like little else. So what had us trawling the Internet last week for the latest flood videos and photos from Calgary?

For Nature Boy and me, and many of our acquaintances, last week involved personal connections. We’ve lived in or near, or know people who have lived in or near, some of the hardest-hit areas. The house swept under the bridge at Bragg Creek could have belonged to a neighbour. The Canmore house with the deck falling into the creek-turned-river was just doors away from where a friend once lived. Family and friends live in Calgary’s river valleys and in High River.

That explains our reaction to Alberta’s floods, but not to catastrophes further afield. More than familiarity and personal connection drives the compulsion.

We have to remember that although humans manipulate and remake our environment now, for tens of thousands of years, weather, fire and other natural occurrences determined whether we survived from one day to the next.

When we see images of those events occurring today, even if we ourselves are in no way at risk, the most ancient, survival-obsessed parts of our brains spring to attention and commandeer our attention. We’re just as compelled now to keep our eyes on images of rising water or looming flames as we would have been when those events occurred anywhere near us when we lived in caves along Spain’s coast 30,000 years ago.

Just as birds haven’t yet evolved to deal with glass windows, we haven’t, at our core, adjusted to the realism of full-colour photographs and video. Our primitive brains register images of danger and label them the real thing.

Biology sounds the alarm: “Danger! Danger! Danger!”

Our problem-solving skills, opposable thumbs and ability to handle tools may surpass anything this planet has seen, but our most basic instincts remain as basic as ever.

The disasters tell us something else about ourselves. No matter how sophisticated our communications networks and lifestyles, no matter how fancy our cars and living spaces, no matter if we’re CEOs, farmers or fishermen, natural disasters bring us all down to our most basic selves: We’re human.

And all that that entails.

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