As terrorism and hate dominate our screens today and the media and some people in politics whip up the crowd into a frenzy of fear about all Muslims, all Mexicans, and all “whoever,” my poor brain goes numb. This makes no logical sense. Sure I know why they do it. Plain unadulterated fear – terror! Fear gets more viewers and votes than harmony and love. But why do a large number of viewers believe what they hear without examining the facts? How is this possible I ask myself?
Because I’m in the field of psychology and I’m very interested in what is going on in the brain, my automatic response is to try to find an answer. I sit down in my favorite rocker, paper in hand, and begin to doodle as I think. I draw a rough draft of the brain. Okay, I reason, this is not coming out of the forebrain, the logical brain. No, this has to come from the amygdala, the emotional center that overrides logic when humans are in serious danger. People think, “Oh God, my family and I will be killed? They will rob us and we will lose everything. We must act now to stop them.”
Fear triggers massive amounts of adrenaline that then surges through the body. It makes us abnormally strong and swift so that in emergencies we can fight and protect ourselves, our loved ones and our offspring, or flee, in order to survive. You’ve heard of mothers who have lifted the front of a car to rescue their children. No thought needed. (It’s the same brain reaction that occurs prior to PTSD.) But the problem is that fear and excitement are closely related and after a while of being on high alert some people become adrenaline junkies. They are addicted to adrenaline and actively seek it out.
Okay, to some degree our fears are rational. They are certainly normal. There is a reason terrorists are called terrorists. Yes, we do have terrorism in the world, and yes we do need to be prepared, and yes some of the terrorists are Muslims. But why do human’s brains generalize to all Muslims, all Christians, all Mexicans, all people of another race, all immigrants, or all Americans?
Why do humans (and animals too) around the world, not just Americans, react in a similar way when they perceive a serious threat? Okay, I say, to myself, “That tells me this reaction has something to do with the way the brain has evolved.” Actually the answer, I believe, is quite simple. Over many years, the reaction helped humans survive. We call it the survival instinct.
In the good old days when some of those “tigers, lions, and bears, oh my” were lurking near the caves to eat us for dinner, we really couldn’t take the time to logically figure out whether that particular lion was there to kill us, so we sprang to action to fight or escape. Or all people from a different tribe. We rushed home to tell our tribe that we were in danger. The men gathered in haste, spears in hand, and ran out to fight the lion and keep the tribe safe. So did they destroy only the lion or the few people who were after them? No, they killed all lions, all humans from the other tribe.
Have you ever heard the statement, “They all look alike to me?” That’s what I mean when I talk about generalizing to all those that are not similar to us and similar to our enemies. In the end the people who were best at generalizing and destroying a certain group that might be enemies, survived. We call it survival of the fittest. Today we call it racism and prejudice.
And how about the future? Our world is changing and growing in leaps and bounds. Our answers no longer come from our ancestors. We need to forge into new territories to survive. Neurologists have clearly shown that our brains continue to evolve. So how do we want them to evolve? Read Wednesdays blog to learn what I think we can do to help our brains move past our impulsive fear reactions.