I’ve gone on for a long time about fear making humans stupid, and even about it being a weapon and a brain poison. But I’ve also wondered at times whether people would hit fear-fatigue… that point where people have simply had enough fear and walk out from under it.
As it turns out, however, I was a bit optimistic on fear fatigue. I’ve been reading Robert Sapolsky’s newest book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best And Worst, and was disappointed to learn what the best new research shows on the long-term application of fear. (Or, in the academic terminology, sustained stress.)
My disappointment, however, was soon tempered by two things:
I gained information on how fear poisoning works.
That human neurology is immensely variable, that there are exceptions to everything, and that if the whole picture were actually as dark as the most troubling findings, we’d have devolved into nothing but murderous monkeys long ago.
I barely need to say this, but 2020 has been The Year of Fear. I’m a bit amazed by the extent of it. There is a certain appeal to soaking up all the fear stories in normal times – our ability to look evil in the eye makes us appear vibrant – but 2020 has pushed far beyond that level. What we’re encountering is much more than simple fear porn, and there are certain outlets (including websites) that I can only describe as obscene.
This is more destructive than people realize.
What Perpetual Fear Does To Us
I’m going to quote from Sapolsky, who is one of the best neuroscientists of our time. I’ll edit a bit to simplify and to remove the brain-area references, and will follow the passages with a few elaborations.
“During sustained stress, we’re more fearful, our thinking is muddled, we assess risks poorly, and act impulsively out of habit, rather than incorporating new data.”
Under a long stream of fear (like scary headlines), our thinking breaks down. Let me put that very simply: You may be very bright in essence, but when you consume hours of fear every day, you become stupid. And please understand: This is biological. Your brain operations become those of a stupid person. (And yes, I’m using “stupid” very unscientifically.)
Also bear in mind that fear works. The people selling fear on TV, web pages and social media are being rewarded for it. They have become, using my terms loosely but not unfairly, drug dealers, selling damaging material that people become dependent upon. Moreover, these are professionals. Social media companies are fully aware that their business models depend upon people being addicted to them. They are careful to keep them addicted.
The fears people consume, then, are coming to them from people who are cashing in from it.
“Stress weakens connections that are essential for incorporating new information that should prompt shifting to a new strategy—while strengthening connections with habitual brain circuits.”
In other words, fear locks you into your habits and your previous choices. It literally diminishes the brain pathways that allow you to change your mind.
This is serious, and I suspect that you’ve seen examples of this already.
“Under sustained stress we process emotionally prominent information rapidly and automatically, but less accurately. Working memory, impulse control, decision-making, risk-assessment and task shifting are impaired.”
Again, prolonged fear locks people into whatever path they’re already on. And again, this is biological. The brain circuits are directly affected.
From everything I’ve written above (and there are other nasty effects like domestic violence), it would appear that we are doomed; that our neighbors who’ve drunk deep from the river of fear are brain-locked, and so long as the fear stream continues (there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight), they will get more and more rigid in their biases, and that violence will continue and increase.
And for some people all of the above will be true. Fear destroys in the most direct way: biologically.
Still… biology is never simple, and especially on the human level. While the things above are generally true, there are always exceptions; sometimes a lot of them. And it is those exceptions that have saved us, time after time.
The wages of perpetual fear are polarized and locked minds. And that leads to knee-jerk opposition, violence and murder. We’re seeing that now and we stand to see it for some time. The world, it seems, has become addicted to fear.
And yet, many of us refuse, and this is a long way from over.
There was a party in my neighborhood two days ago: Music, talking, playing, laughing and so on. It was the first joyful noise I’ve heard in public for a long time.
Life finds a way, and especially human life.
11 thoughts on “The Wages of Perpetual Fear”
I highly recommend the book “False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear” (https://www.amazon.com/dp/0470053844/) because it goes into quite a bit of detail about the biological effects of fear.
It was written in 2006, and it’s really relevant today.
Thanks. I will get it.
If fear was really that dangerous, we wouldn’t be able to feel fear. Evolution would have eliminated such a dangerous emotion long time ago. Of course it hasn’t, because fear is very useful when the environment is dangerous.
Why do we have both optimists and pessimists? When the tribe found a strange tree with fruit nobody had seen before, the optimists were hungry and ate it, the pessimists refused to eat this strange fruit. When the fruit was poisonous, the optimists died. When the fruit was good to eat, the pessimists were hungry for a little longer. But if the tribe had no optimists at all, the tribe starved in spite of having food next to it.
The point is, you still don’t know if the fruit is poisonous. Let the optimists be optimistic, and the pessimist be pessimistic. Don’t tell people that being fearful is a bad thing, because it isn’t.
So typical, of the fake libertarians and their selective philosophy on free speech… Just hilarious!
Again, typical form from the cowardly far-right “libertarians.”
They will delete my comments about their misanthropic philosophy, but will leave up my comments about lack of free speech, to create this perception that they are giving me my free speech, when in fact, they are not… Oh the hypocrisy… but what do you expect from a philosophy that’s failed and is predicated on division and hatred.
‘dividing’……says someone who divides people into those who agree with them and those who dont, i think its called fascism
I think Peter Harris’ comment proves you point completely.
I was going to trash that guy’s comments – they are simply slash-and-burn stuff – but you’re right, they do prove the point. Thanks.
(I’ll think be nixing him in the future, however.)
This propaganda of the media has led to people wanting to stay stupid and continue their daily dose of the blue pill. Let the sheep be led to hells door.
Very interesting article . I have a friend that I have been communicating with over current events. We disagree entirely. He is terrified of the virus and can’t wait for his vaccine. He is intelligent, well read and travelled. Despite this it is now impossible to have a reasonable conversation with him . He just will not respond to evidence that I send to him but fires back with personal abuse against anyone who does not agree with every aspect of the WHOs advice. He will not accept that vaccines harm even some people. Something has happened to his formally agile brain and this article resonates. Thanks I will read the book mentioned above.
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