Let me start with a macro example not in the world of psychology, but has psychological implications all over it. One that even though political, I hope most will consider being nonpartisan in nature.
After 9/11, the United States government did a number of things to try to regain a sense of security in the face of the terrorist threat. The Patriot Act was the start and more recently the news about the NSA’s ability to snoop on anyone’s Internet behavior being another example of how the government is acting to feel safer.
Or, in other words, be less fearful.
We fear what we don’t understand. Starting for some of us with the childhood fear of what’s inside the closet, or underneath the bed, or in grandma’s attic. Our reptile brain, the brain stem, has evolved to anticipate danger and can cause all kinds of emotional responses to get us the hell away from things that scare us, primarily the Fight/Flight/Freeze response.
Originally the Fight/Flight/Freeze response evolved in order for us to survive in the face of predators that potentially could kill and/or eat us. Times have changed. The predators these days carry guns, pharmaceutical drugs, intercontinental cruise missiles, or degrees in banking and finance. And they look, well, not exactly like lions, tigers, or bears.
Leading up to today’s real threats, such as terrorist organizations that lack a target-able home base, let alone home country from which they can attack us from.
Even for the biggest, most powerful military in the history of our blue world. And lots of smart, military type people confronting—not always successfully—their own fears.
So long after the development of the reptile brain in mammals, came the newest part of our gray matter, the prefrontal cortex and the cortex, sometimes just called the neocortex. This is the part of the brain that can think about itself (as in think about you), that can abstract, that learns language and has developed ways to resolve conflict other than hitting your neighbor on the head with a sharp rock.
The neocortex can also talk the reptile brain through its fear based experience and responses. This is where meditation and the miracle of mindfulness come into play. That means you can talk yourself through your fear. Neat, huh?
A big disconnect that can happen in people however is that the reptile brain and the neocortex often don’t want to talk to each. If your brain is a government bureaucracy, the different parts of the brain are sometimes bad at sharing information with each other. Or, in other words, the thinking part of your brain is oblivious to your feelings of fear, anger and whatever.
Also, the neocortex loves to talk down to the reptile brain, convincing it that those feelings of fear and anger aren’t so real, and not a big deal. That’s called rationalization, when the neocortex tries to “explain” emotions away in a logical, rational way. Rationalizing is, however, far from a perfect coping skill. We love horror movies because they communicate directly with the reptile brain and are so “dumb” they bypass the neocortex completely.
So, the neocortex thinks it’s got all the answers, but it doesn’t. Fear, anger, and all our other emotions are real. And the brainstem shares a lot of those ignored emotions with another part of the brain, the Limbic system, and then things can get really interesting. But if we are using all the different parts of our brain to process and adapt to our experiences, then we can learn to not have the equivalent of a knee jerk response to our fears. That’s the goal.
Getting some people to admit they even have feelings is a difficult job. Our society doesn’t really encourage men, for example, to admit to feelings. Other than rage and anger that somehow have been defined as “masculine.” Women, in contrast, are not encouraged to express their anger because that’s not ladylike. Bullshit. More angry women and maybe they can help change the world. And what about other feelings, like shame, or embarrassment, or fear? I wonder if some men (and women) don’t even have a context in which to understand some of those feelings. So, it gets skipped over in favor of anger, aggression, or sometimes depression. The depression being a sure sign that there are a bunch of feelings that are outside of that person’s current awareness.
We all have a lot of feelings outside of our awareness.
Because of the terrorists, because of war and rape, because of invalidation, injustice, murders, inequality, the list is as long as you have the time to keep writing things down.
We have become numb to our own feelings in order to cope with reality. And then one day, one second, those numb feelings get triggered and you are having a panic attack on the bus. Or in the shower. Or wherever.
And all of a sudden it is Revenge of the Brain Stem.
And it gets worse. Hence the cheerful title…
Getting back to the political side of this story: remember that Tim McVeigh was a white guy. The terrorists could already be here. The Occupy movement, the Tea Party, immigrants, the college students wanting cheap student loans, the women in Texas who want access to abortions, the Christians who want to pray in schools.
Lots of groups of people to be afraid of.
Racism/discrimination works the same way. That person over there that looks different/talks different/fucks different/is different/ than you is a threat.
That’s reptile brain threat differentiation.
And even though some senators apparently never read the Patriot Act before they voted for it, and both political parties having no problem declaring either Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden criminals instead of being whistleblowers on the government’s behavior, the government is claiming all these violations of our constitutional rights are in our best interest. Take your medicine, you young naïve child, government knows best. You didn’t really believe in the 4th amendment, now did you?
Behavior, in other words, that could be construed as asshole-like. Even Jimmy Carter knows what time it is.
If the NSA and the CIA and all the other government agencies are the equivalent of the reptile brain, then conscientious objectors like Snowden and Manning are the neocortex complaining about how the reptile brain is out of control, encouraging reason and law rather than fear and anger. Do we really want the reptile brain of our government in charge of nuclear missiles and every spy satellite in existence? Do you want your reptile brain in charge of all of your relationships? Do you want fear to determine how you are intimate with others, or do you want the neocortex to help with that? You do have a choice.
When telling the truth becomes a crime, then the government (the reptile brain) is no longer protecting us—it’s protecting itself. There’s a name for that kind of government. UK writer George Orwell had a lot to say about it. Maybe you have heard of him and a certain book he wrote in 1948. When it’s an individual and not a government, and the reptile brain is completely in charge, suffering, alienation, and fear are likely to follow.
Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?