Yes and No, Rabbits and Elephants: The Brain Science of the Referendum


There’s a reason why society feels so angry and divided right now. Dr Matthew Roberts explains the science behind the battle for a Voice to parliament.

Amid the hoohah of Australia’s 2023 referendum campaign for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition and Voice to Parliament, I got to spend a day in a room with a neuroscientist PhD who was also a mental health nurse, and a great speaker.

Dr Haley Peckham specialises in the neuroscience of trauma as it affects us as a species, and the timing could not have been better.

Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price had laughed about intergenerational trauma at her National Press Club address. Nyunggai Warren Mundine had called the peaceful and welcoming Uluru Statement From The Heart, our country’s Mona Lisa, a ‘declaration of war’.

Meanwhile social media was as they call it, a dumpster fire. Lies, insults, more lies, threats, outright abuse, toxic to so much goodness we knew was there under it. That goodness and community won’t stick around if the trolls, sealions, bots and sock accounts keep poisoning it.

All that over a few words in an old document and another committee in Canberra, city of committees. So many impulses acted on, so little empathy, so little vision for the future.

We are behaving like rabbits, it turns out. And most of us would rather be elephants.

Now this takes a little bit of explaining, but stick with me because it’s the best thing I’ve heard about humans and their health in nearly 30 years of medical education.

Yes, that good.

According to Life History Theory, Dr Peckham explained, our genes’ behaviour is affected by our environment (epigenetics) to give us the best chance of survival in that environment.

When resources are scarce, we’re rabbits – we grow up fast, live fast, breed early and in abundance, parent less, and die young. This relies on lots of babies with fewer making it to adulthood, but works by sheer numbers.

When resources are abundant, our genes behave differently – we take longer to mature, delay reproduction, have fewer babies and parent them for longer, living slower, longer lives. Like elephants.

Elephant living is what modern healthcare and social policy wants to produce, of course. It involves less suffering by meeting need early, allowing for a long juvenile stage of life, supporting good parenting and nurture of young minds and bodies.

If you’re lucky to be born in good times for the soil your family tree is in, you’ll more likely find your early life safe and predictable, and your body will assume life will be long.

You’ll go for two marshmallows later, as in the famous delayed gratification study. You’ll be more reflective, empathic, your relationships will be richer and gentler, you’ll delay sex and reproduction, and put more into it when babies do arrive. A better life for a better world right?

Yes… and no. What about the rabbits?

If you’re a more rabbit-like human, you were more likely born in a family tree rooted in scarcity, and your early environment was more likely to be dangerous and unpredictable. Your body will tell you life will be short.

Eat one marshmallow now, go with the impulse in the moment, use whatever works now – sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, all at once if possible.

Where would our western culture be without our lightning-quick rabbits? High-achieving or fast-living, candles have two ends for a reason, all that colour and movement, sound and fury? There would be no movies, novels, poems…or stock markets, parliaments, boardrooms, where so much epigenetic stress is converted into the manic energy that runs corporations and governments.

Rabbits cop a lot of flak, being more likely to be disadvantaged in so many ways. The thing is that this all goes on at the EPIgenetic level, above the gene. The environment changes how the genes are expressed, connecting amino acid chains to form proteins. This way our nervous systems can shift from rabbity to elephanty quickly because of neuroplasticity, the amazing ability of nerves to change connections and function. But they can also change back, as the environment around us changes.

If we create the right well-resourced environments, rabbits can become elephants, living longer, slower lives with less pain in them. But we would also not have our go-getters, our edge-livers with the spider-senses and wisdoms hard-won, who live fast, who may fall quickly and deeply in and out of love, rage and outrage, and are who we go to in a crisis, because they’ve lived there rather a lot.

Come the zombie apocalypse, I would rather a rabbit or several had my back.

I love the theory Dr Peckham introduced us to that day because it’s not judgy. Rabbits are not better or worse than elephants, both make sense in their environment, and are successful there, humans notwithstanding. But oh, so judgy out there on the socials right now.

Undoubtedly, YES is elephant thinking. Empathic, reflective, long-term vision. But think about the environment we are in.

Since 2000, we Australians have had War on Terror, Stop The Boats, Millennium Drought, Climate Crisis, GFC, Black Saturday, Black Summer, COVID, and now Cost Of Living crises. It’s felt like one thing after another, because it has been.

We might be getter smarter in our tech, making bits of progress here and there with #metoo, marriage equality, green energy and so on, but the rabbits are multiplying.

Not literally, as our birth rate continues to fall, but psychologically, as rates of community mental distress skyrocket, and right-wing populist conservatism spreads like, well, rabbits.

We are more stressed than ever. Scoffing the one marshmallow now, going for the NO that feels better now.

And all under the influence of powerful people who benefit from creating scarcity, communicating emotional alarm signals subliminally, slowly dialling up our rabbitness, muting our elephantness. Sending us down rabbit holes.

What can we do about this? Lots of things, much of it obvious – act local, reach out, go face-to-face where possible, spread truth, don’t give up, and hound your MP for change to media ownership laws to prevent any repeat of the disaster for our humanity that the Murdoch empire has been.

But I was reminded by Dr Peckham’s seminar that we can do more armed with better science. This rabbit-elephant binary risks the same old wars breaking out. We need to resist that.

We need both kinds of adaptedness in our stressed society as it is, even if most people would rather be elephants living slower, less painful lives. And even if elephant living is probably better for the planet.

Rabbits will hide down rabbit holes in shame if we shout at them for acting according to their bodies’ natural signalling, if we judge their ‘lifestyle choices’.

Hiding in shame, no one learns anything except to hide some more. Change is only possible when you come out of hiding.

So to help more elephant living happen, we must first respect the rabbit survival style, recognise people whose rabbitness has been set off by experiences in them and their family tree long before they could choose as adults. Not fair to judge us on things we can’t choose, right?

We need to bring our rabbits out of rabbit holes, into the light, showing it’s safe, so we get to know these remarkable creatures, helping them know themselves. They can run bloody fast. They are soft. There are so many of them! They are amazing.

As a psychotherapist I have watched people grow, switching on their elephantness, slowing down, reflecting more, saving their marshmallows by borrowing less from tomorrow to get through today. I’m getting better at getting people better sooner, by learning that loving the rabbit is key.

I’ve also had to learn to love the rabbit in me. Sure, I grew a trunk with all my training and experience, I had to. But my ears don’t always flop majestically, and my tail is sometimes fluffy. This is because my family tree has had some scarcity in its soil, so…I have a thing for marshmallows.

A longer life with a thicker skin sounds good. But I do like darting about a bit too. I’ll cop a bit of suffering to enjoy this marshmallow now.

Then I’ll lumber up to the ballot box and vote YES, and go on trumpeting the truth for peanuts as long as I live.

Now, if you’d like something to help you remember how the whole rabbit-elephant thing works, check this out, courtesy of Dr Peckham’s friend and colleague, the ‘peer-reviewed rapper’ Baba Brinkman:

This was written on lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, who never ceded sovereignty. We acknowledge their elders past, present and emerging. I would also like to thank the practitioners researchers and authors who are guiding me on the path towards more trauma-informed practice. Moreover I want to thank my patients who have so patiently taught me using what was right in front of me all that time – them. But most of all I thank the people who live and have lived with me. They know what that’s like. Finally, this is a science communication article shaped to be politically active at this time. It generalises to make its points, and is no substitute for personalised advice. I plan to write a more clinically grounded version in future, but as you can understand, timing is important. I would love some feedback as I develop the writing, so please leave a comment or you can find my email and social media contact details with a simple search.

Dr Matthew Roberts is a Melbourne psychiatrist, therapist, clinical teacher and writer for clinical science communication blog My Doctor’s Handwriting. He is a founding member of the Australian Fatherhood Research Consortium, the Perinatal Psychiatry Network and the Kew Perinatal Mental Health Practitioner’s Network. He works in private practice and for Monash University and Peninsula Health.