“The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” -Proverbs 9:10
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth” -Pema Chodron
“Fear is paper thin” -Anon.
Brain scientists must use animals to conduct brain experiments on; experimenting on people would be wholly unethical (ed. note: unless they work for Lunch). And so most of what we know about the science of the human brain comes from experiments observing rodents.
While I did major in neuroscience in college, I don’t remember many of the details from the experiments we conducted. However, there are a few things I do remember vividly – involving the difference between mice and rats.
Rats are easier to handle, a lot of the time more calm and resilient to their environment than mice (who always seem to be too rambunctious or scared to learn tasks). You can see this in the water maze experiments, where rats immediately and confidently start swimming towards a safety platform, while mice panic as soon as their feet touch the water. Mice are weird like that.
Professor said that it’s not because mice are less smart than rats, a bias that tends to be held in the neuroscience community – in fact, mice can perform decision-making tasks just as well as rats. It’s just that mice were always tested in equipment and experiments designed for a rat, and not for a mouse. Professor said that equipment can be altered and resized to promote mouse learning and behavior, but rats are easier and more efficient for these studies, so we just stick to that.
But then there’s genetic studies, too. Professor said that mice are better for genetic studies – perhaps because they are smaller and more easy to mutate. And so most of our genetic studies of the brain happen in mice. Professor exclaimed that this had led to a weird divide in neuroscience: a ton of behavioral literature for rats, but no genetic literature, and a ton of genetic literature for mice, but no behavioral literature.
I remember I laughed to myself when we learned this in class, and I think the guy next to me thought I was daydreaming about something funny.
Truth be told, I was actually forming a hypothesis about the state of our world and where our species is headed.
As humans, we are born like mice – more sensitive, less goal oriented – but the power structures of modern society harden us into rats if we are to survive its maze. And to put it simply, this is because rats exhibit less fear than mice, who are so overcome by fear that they are willing to accept death versus trying to find the maze’s safety platform.
The thought reminds me of Harvey Dent’s line in Batman: The Dark Knight that goes, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Much like the central conflict of the movie, the only way to really change the structure of society in order to make it less damning is to first become the villain – or the rat – and master its maze. From there, the ball’s in your court.
Here’s my hypothesis: due to technology, the maze of modern society has metastasized to the point where the best of us remain as mice and drop off completely, while the worst of us, compelled by greed, are left with all the power to manipulate the maze in ways that are unconducive to the preservation of our species.
Let’s start with a big question: Are our thoughts driven by our emotions, or our emotions driven by our thoughts? Might sound like an unanswerable chicken and egg quandary, but it really isn’t. If you study neuroscience, you learn that there is a very clear answer: our emotions precede our thoughts. The evidence is in our own species’ brain evolution. I find this best explained by the American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean’s model of the “Triune Brain” which, in many ways, tells the story of the evolution of humanity.
According to Maclean’s model, the first part of the brain to form after the spinal cord and brain stem was the reptilian complex, or the “Reptilian Brain.” This includes structures of the basal ganglia – an innermost bundle of neurons situated at the center of the brain. It’s theorized that the forebrains of animals such as reptiles and birds are dominated by these structures; they’re responsible for entirely instinctual, “unconscious” behaviors like dominance, aggression, and territoriality.
The second part of the brain to form is what Maclean called the paleomammalian complex, or the “Mammalian Brain.” This includes the limbic system – structures in the brain involved in hormonal responses, the fight or flight response, bonding, reproducing, and parental behavior. All the emotions that drive our species to want to be nurturing to each other and work collectively; all the behaviors that redeem our primitive, Machiavellian tendencies.
Last but certainly not least to evolve is what Maclean called the neomammalian complex, or the “Neocortex.” As the most recent advancement in the evolution of the human brain, this layer is responsible for “higher thinking,” i.e. language processing, abstraction, planning, personality and our perception of our own consciousness. It takes the information gathered from the other two layers and then processes it. It includes the frontal lobe, and it’s the first thing to go in most cases of neurodegeneration.
So our basic survival instincts precede our emotional response which precedes our thoughts. Violence precedes healing which precedes understanding. I’m not religious, but I like to think of it as the Devil precedes God which precedes enlightenment. Call it what you will, the point is that our emotions precede our ability to “think.”
This has pretty big implications. On a mass scale, it means that society is swayed more by emotion than by logic. FMRI (functional magentic resonance imaging) studies also back this up. When put in the FMRI machine and given certain visual/auditory cues, the parts of the brain to have blood flow to them first are the emotional structures, followed subsequently by the higher-level thinking structures. Scientists like Jay Van Bavel from the Social Perception and Evaluation Laboratory at NYU have linked this phenomenon to why most Americans respond to politics in an emotionally tribal, sports-fan-like way instead of with rational thought.
Politicians know this, and, of course, manipulate it.
Coders for social media algorithms know this too. In the age of screen time equating to company profit, “content creators” purposely curate videos that grab the emotional attention of users to keep them viewing for as long as possible. See any cute videos of puppies lately? Any long, drawn out, suspense-building videos involving some kind of practical joke? Oddly satisfying makeup transformations or cooking tutorials? None of this is by accident. Every marketing playbook out there currently aims to adhere to the Mammalian Brain because it dominates our thoughts and is a much more lucrative tactic than trying to hold user attention with critical thinking.
And there is not a more powerful emotion of the Mammalian Brain to target than fear. The psychological and neuroscientific communities largely agree that fear is the most primitive of all our emotions, meaning that every other emotion we experience stems from the fear response in some way. Fear is what links the Reptilian Brain and the Mammalian Brain. It technically is also what links the Mammalian Brain to the Neocortex. Fear is an abstract concept, but we all know what it feels like. It’s uncomfortable.
Many philosophers regard fear as the essential emotion we need to overcome in order to seek the truth and reach enlightenment. Questioning fear is what separates the boys from the men; the distinction lies in who is brave enough to ask the scary questions as well as ponder their answers.
But, you need to experience fear before you can ask questions about it.
Neuroscientist Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University runs the college’s Laboratory of Social and Affective Neuroscience. She specializes in studying psychopaths, and found an interesting correlation between fear and empathy.
When it comes to psychopaths, it is empathy that they lack. We all know that. But the actual only tangible response seen in their brain FMRI’s is a lack of the fear response; their emotional brains do not physically feel fear, leaving their rational brains to decipher what fear means through observation in others.
There is therefore an intrinsic connection between feeling others’ pain and wanting to care for them, and feeling the discomfort of fear; the more fear one experiences, the more likely they are to be empathetic towards others. This is because the fear response was intended to protect our species from wild beasts in the forest; it was necessary in order to protect our kin and ensure that our genetic code prevailed.
Most people are familiar with the “fight or flight” response: the idea that, when confronted with fear, the initial human reaction is to either escape it or fight it. But there is a third reaction. This is the “freeze response”: where an animal is so overwhelmed by fear that it freezes in the face of uncertainty, unable to make any decision to protect itself. Mice often exhibit this when placed in water mazes; it’s a learned-helplessness response, and in the moment, animals that exhibit this are so over-stimulated by fear that they basically short-circuit and accept their own death fully.
For most of my life, I’ve been watching news coverage about how our planet’s temperatures could reach an irreversible tipping point by as early as 2030 if the world doesn’t dramatically reduce carbon emissions, which will lead to existential catastrophe. Over the past two years I have been watching news coverage about a pandemic that has now claimed approximately 6 million lives worldwide (according to the internet). Over the past two weeks, I have been watching live coverage of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine – a monumental event that will undoubtedly steer the history books towards darkness – through the cracked screen of my iPhone 7.
My favorite social media app is Twitter, because it’s honest. For whatever reason, people aren’t as afraid to look like assholes on Twitter. They really speak their mind. When bad things first hit the news, Twitter is where I go; it’s also often faster at disseminating information than news broadcasts.
What I’ve found is that, when bad things initially happen, people truly care. They post serious content communicating compassion, worry, and a desire to collectively act.
But things change over time. And it surely isn’t a long amount of time.
For example, it only took about one day after the Russian invasion of the Ukraine for the “World War III” memes to start circulating. For the most part, they were nihilistic, cynical commentaries poking fun at the meaninglessness of war and of life (curated by some socially-awkward American from the luxury and privilege of their studio apartment in a city not experiencing war).
The memes reminded me of the “black fly” memes that circulated after one of the vice-presidential debates between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, where a black fly landed on Pence’s head. It became that people were only talking about the situational irony of the fly – and not about what the politicians were actually saying and communicating.
In both cases, the internet became a place not for meaningful conversation, but for bonding over the dissociation from reality.
I believe that people react with nihilistic humor like this because deep down, it’s a fear-driven freeze response. It is easier to turn on, tune in, and drop out than it is to stay tuned in and try to figure out where you fit within a situation and how you can make a difference. It’s not that people aren’t feeling fear the way psychopaths don’t, but instead it’s that they’re feeling so much fear that they’re frozen towards the situation and don’t know how to address it with their Neocortex except via distraction.
And when this happens collectively, it’s easier for the greed of power-hungry people to warp the truth and make us forget what it even feels like to actively have a seat at truth’s table.
Modern day evil is increasingly more insidious, abstract and global than what our brain circuitry was designed to fear. This means that it requires a lot of critical thinking to recognize and call out in order to stop. But nowadays, technology allows us to escape from reality whenever things get uncomfortable, driving us to think less critically than ever before. With the constant dissemination of information and unlimited distractions from how that information makes us feel, our evolution is now working against us; the instinct to escape our fear at all costs now drives the type of dissociation and indifference that will be our species’ demise. Our collective fear response has been frozen and desensitized, replacing the truth with distraction, and true empathy with a type of pseudo-empathy dictated by our online presence.
Less and less people are asking the scary questions, because there are less people daring enough to keep their attention on one issue for long enough to do so.
Our ancestors weren’t able to just keep scrolling on a screen when they saw a wild animal charging at them. They had to act. And if they didn’t, they would literally die.
We are meant to feel our fear. We are meant to sit with it, overcome it, reflect upon it, and grow from it. If we distract ourselves from it, we don’t escape it; in fact, that just means that we’ve willingly been swallowed by it.
I think this is what the “Litany of Fear” from the novel Dune, whose movie adaptation came out last year, intends to communicate:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
That’s the only way things will get better.