The state of fear

Lately, I’ve been reading a rather interesting book on the subject of fear. (I would tell you the title, but it’s in the other room, and I’m too lazy to get up and look.) So far, the book argues that humans developed a deep and resonant sense of fear to make up for our various shortcomings — we’re not particularly strong or fast, and we don’t have built-in defenses like armor or claws or fangs. We’re good at planning and strategy, but that’s not always useful in emergency situations where we need to make a decision pronto. We need a system of awareness that is very sensitive to potential dangers, hence fear.

The main driver of our system of fear is the limbic system which takes incoming sensory information and scans it for danger. It doesn’t take much to set off, which is why you sometimes see a long limp object in the yard and think “oh my God, it’s a snake,” only to discover it’s your garden hose. The limbic system presumes the worse, and investigates later.

Our system of fear also explains a lot of our base prejudices. It doesn’t take much to convince us that the people on the other side of the hill, or people of a different race, or who wear different clothes, are try to kill us. And through much of history, a sizable portion of those people were trying to kill us. Thus it’s easy for our brain to accept the evil motivations prescribed to what sociologists would refer to as “the other” — the person who is unlike us.

I’ve become increasingly interested in how the design of our neurological system relates to the realm of politics. One thing I’ve always noted is the willingness of people to believe utterly absurd things about their political opponents. Democrats don’t just want progressive taxation, they want to ultimately convert the United States into a socialist hellhole where white men are enslaved by cackling minorities. Republicans don’t want to just reduce government power, they want to hand the reins of government over to corporations who will then force everyone to eat bioengineered food while constructing a Gulag for Mexicans. Why is it always so easy to believe the worst about your opponent?

I suspect the limbic system is at play here. When fired up, the limbic system is responsible for releasing various hormones and neurotransmitters into our system. This may correspond to a state of fear, or perhaps to what I view as a cousin of fear, our sense of outrage. When you look at the world of political theater, many people seem addicted to their own outrage. I’m guessing they’re actually addicted to the rush of chemicals they get when they stir themselves up into a state of outrage.

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