A Blog by Carl Zimmer

Snakes on the Brain: My New Column for the New York Times

Snakes inhabit our fears and stories. Why do they have such a hold on us? For my New York Times column this week, I take a look at a provocative theory that snakes have shaped our evolution since our primate ancestors first clambered through the trees. This week, a new study added a neurological twist to this idea, as scientists offered evidence that some of our neurons may be exquisitely sensitive to snakes. Check it out.

(And just to stress that our relationship with snakes isn’t all about fear, here’s one of my favorite images from my book Science Ink)


8 thoughts on “Snakes on the Brain: My New Column for the New York Times

  1. Hmm, all sorts of things have a snake shape, sparking neurons in our brains. The nose of a jet breaking the sound barrier is an image that comes to mind.
    The senses awake. It is no mistake that the snake holds power in the Garden of Eden. Its a double-edged symbol that can send shock waves out in all directions

  2. Great column!

    Always wondered why, as some folks like to say, after Eve came from Adam’s rib, and they were dumped naked in that garden with POISION apples and snakes – but no mention that the snakes were poisonous……

    Why are we so afraid of snakes but EAT APPLES?

  3. In reality, I would think that snakes kill far more people than apples,(though I have not seen any statistics.)
    My above comment was a poor attempt at expressing how powerful real snakes and snake symbolism have been in human culture.
    I understand the study was done with non-human primates, but the human parallel seems like a stretch.
    The fear of snakes, apples, poison or anything else depends on one’s cultural perspective. These fears should not be treated like “trash”.

  4. I was not so convinced by the PNAS study. The ‘snake pictures’ just stuck out too much from all other pictures they showed to the macaques in color and contrast. They should have used those snake pictures and as a negative control pictures of (for example) bunnies in front of similar background. Such as they did it, there are too many other possible characteristics to which their neurons responded, apart from the picture’s ‘snake identity’.

  5. Methinks I see a flaw. At least according to the abstract, the researchers did not show the macaques pictures of spiders, big cats, eagles, or other generically dangerous things. It’s entirely possible that those 91 neurons compose a generic early warning threat detector, not an ofidiodar.

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