when in danger, “rock” or “sugar”?

let’s have a look at how tricking people’s brains can actually save their life.

a few years ago, I went to the french Alps with my brother and a few friends for my first rock climbing experience. as I was minding my own business and focusing on the position of my hands and feet as not to fall, I heard the instructor shouting “SUCRE!” – “sugar” in french, since we were all french speaking. everyone instantly looked up and saw that a rock had detached from the cliff and was falling down at high speed. my friend, who was on the rock’s trajectory, quickly reacted to avoid it. thankfully, he somehow managed to dodge the stone chunk, so the story has a happy ending. we all laughed about it to try to loosen up after our flying rock encounter and went on with our climbing.

as we reached the top, I asked the instructor why he yelled out “sugar” instead of “rock”.

“when you say sugar, people look up. when you say rock, they usually react unpredictably”, he said.

at that time, I found it weird, but funny. so whenever I’m hiking or climbing and a rock happens to fall, I say “sugar” – or “sucre” or “suiker”… whatever language makes more sense in the given context.

a few years later, as I was learning about how the human brain works, I thought about this experience again and tried to explain how rock or sugar could have people react differently.

both trigger an instinctive response. but even if it all happens very quickly, they get you in two very different states of mind.

“rock” would set off a scared, stressed and protective state, which would get most of us to freeze or stress into a ball, contracting all of our muscles as if to create an armor for and out of our body. because of that contraction, most people would get hit by the rock, get bruised, hurt and fall.

“sugar” would trigger our brain in a very different way. due to the addictive nature of sugar, and because you currently are putting your body through an exhausting physical activity, “sugar” would get your brains to look towards who ever would be proposing the treat. and there you have it. if the person who sees the rock first, usually someone above others on the cliff, says “sugar”, the others will look up with a hungry and ready-for-a-treat look, see the rock, and react accordingly, often avoiding the rock.

tricks don’t always have to be bad… some can even save your life.

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