Fear on the brain

April 16, 2013 | By | 7 Replies More

At Time Magazine, Maia Szalavitz writes that fear “hijacks the brain.”

“Fear short circuits the brain, especially when it hits close to home, experts say— making coping with events like the bombings at the Boston Marathon especially tricky.
. . . This dramatically alters how we think, since the limbic system is deeply engaged with modulating our emotions. [W]hen people are terrorized, [p]roblem solving becomes more categorical, concrete and emotional [and] we become more vulnerable to reactive and short-sighted solutions.”


Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (7)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    “…more categorical, concrete and emotional [and] we become more vulnerable to reactive and short-sighted solutions.”

    You mean, like being convinced to invade Iraq for no good reason?

    As an MIT alum, and former resident of both Cambridge and downtown Boston (about a mile from Copley Square), I have watched with interest the events of this past week. The outpouring of shock, fear and anger that have appeared on television in response to the bombing death of three people makes me wonder how the people of Iraq and Afghanistan have coped with the countless tons of bombs that the U.S. has dropped on them, killing countless numbers of their innocent friends and relatives. Every time a witness to the Boston Marathon bombing is shown crying and asking, “Why did they do this?”, I wonder how many times people in Iraq or Afghanistan has done this with no television crew standing by to broadcast their grief to the world. I keep wondering why so many self-proclaimed Christians in the U.S. can be so aghast at a relatively small bombing in their country, yet can so easily turn a blind eye to the nationwide carpet bombing they have done in other countries. Apparently, it is because they don’t see their victims as fully human, but rather as communists, or terrorists, or non-Christians, or non-English-speakers, or non-White. I wish that people in the U.S. would, just once, ask themselves: “If we, as a nation, utter a collective groan at a killing like the one in Boston, then what have the people in Iraq or Afghanistan (or Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, Mexico, Cuba…even the native peoples right here in North America…) uttered in response to the killings the U.S. has been responsible for?

    BTW, after watching much of the televised coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, and seen countless people asking what might have prompted it, I wonder if I am the only person who has noticed that this spring marks the ten-year anniversary of George Bush’s unjustified invasion of Iraq, which resulted in the unjustified killing of between 100,000 and 1 million innocent Muslims. Multiply U.S. grief from the Boston bombing by a factor of a few hundred thousand and maybe that’s a reason.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Grumpy. I’ve had similar thoughts throughout this situation. So has Glenn Greenwald: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/16/boston-marathon-explosions-notes-reactions

      The confirmation bias is incredibly potent. Or sometimes I think of the problem as being the lack of cognitive horsepower regarding our “realm of concern.” The moral realm in which we choose to care, or in which we are able to care, is quite limited. BTW, I think this is a limitation for all humans, not just Americans. It just so happens that Americans are the ones with the big supply of bombs and bullets, and a culture saturated with violence. Actually a culture so saturated with violence and so craving of more violence as a supposed remedy for violence, that I’ve called it conflict pornography.

      These are sad days, when we seem incapable of learning lessons because of our demonstrably stunted sense of empathy beyond our borders. And it’s xenophobically defined empathy, way too often based on skin color and whether the OTHERS resemble us in ways that should not be meaningful.

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”
      – unknown; generally misattributed to Joseph Stalin

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Great article, Erich! I really like what Greenwald says about “terrorism” having only the meaning that the U.S. government (maybe I should say just the GOP) wants it to have. If blowing up stuff is the definition of “terrorism,” then the U.S. would seem to be in the top five “terrorist” nations on the planet.

    Concerning the massive over-reaction the U.S. demonstrated last week, I can’t help but notice the similarity to an elementary school playground. Every class has its bully — the kid whose growth hormones kick in before everyone else, and who decides to throw his weight around by beating up on the smaller kids (usually the smallest kids). He has no problem dishing out punishment in an unfair fight that favors him (like, say, the U.S. invading Iraq and bombing it back to the 4th-Century) but, as soon has someone punches him back, he wails. The U.S. is a global bully all too eager to dish out punishment in an unfair fight, but sobs (to an almost ridiculous extent) when someone punches back.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Thinking more about my previous post, maybe something good can come out of the Boston Marathon bombing: maybe if a few more Americans have seen and felt the pain of a bomb exploding in their community, maybe if a few more are afraid of retaliatory bombings here at home, then maybe a few more will think just a bit longer and harder about supporting war-mongering politicians who want to take the U.S. into unnecessary wars. When ‘going to war’ means nothing more than writing a check to pay for it (or borrowing the money and making your kids write a check to pay for it), maybe it’s more painless than it should be. Just as absolute power corrupts absolutely, maybe seeing itself as free to attack anyone it wants without retribution is not a good thing for the U.S. (or for anyone else).

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I hope you’re right, Grumpy, but Americans are incredibly ill-informed about world politics and foreign policy, as well as xenophobic, which rather ruins any inclination one might have to be empathetic.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    I saw an article this week that said many Americans now see minor terrorist attacks, like the one in Boston last week, as “an inherent part of life.” If that means most Americans believe the die is already cast for more attacks in the future, no matter what the U.S. henceforth does abroad, then Americans probably will (unfortunately) remain indifferent to U.S. foreign policy. Still, every time I see yet another person on television grieving the damage and loss caused by the Boston bombing, I imagine the same thing happening ten- or a hundred-fold in the many places the U.S. has bombed, and I continue to hope that more Americans will eventually recognize this, too.

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