“But even more disturbing than the threats from foreign terrorists is a second threat that is right here at home; it is an ideology so fundamentally at odds with historic American values that it threatens to undo the cultural ethics that have made our country great. I call it ‘secular-socialism.’

“The Left has thoroughly infiltrated nearly every cultural commanding height of our civilization; that is, they hold power, influence and control of academia, the elite news media, Hollywood, union leaders, trial lawyers, the courts, the Congress, and the bureaucracy at all levels of government.”

Newt Gingrich


I just finished watching Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” which got me thinking: how do fear mongers get us to do what they do?  How was it possible for Nazis to sweep a civilized and cultured society into fearing and hating the Jews that were an integral part of their communities and contributed so richly to their culture? How did Joe McCarthy and his ilk frighten a nation built on openness and optimism into ostracizing its professors, authors, poets, movie actors and producers? How is it possible for radical fringe candidates, like the ones unleashed in the last few months, to garner the votes of millions of “hard working, God-fearing Real Americans”?

Bill Maher had an answer: “We are a nation that is unenlightened because of religion. I do believe that. I think religion stops people from thinking. I think it justified crazies.”

I don’t buy it; too pat, too easy. Many non-religious societies fell into the same trap of blind fear and hatred. Think Rwanda, for example.

It’s the brain, stupid.

To get to an answer we must start with the individual. What makes a person fear and hate?

Believe it or not, we are hard-wired for it. The “fight or flight” reaction is based on the fear instinct. Think about our ancestor the hunter-gatherer. Unless he reacts with lightning speed upon discovering the crouching tiger, he will become lunch. To survive, there is no time for analysis: the tiger seems asleep, or is old and toothless. The brain structures that coordinate the appropriate fear reactions are in an ancient part of the brain (the midbrain) called the amygdala, and they have a direct line, literally, to the “executive center” of the brain –the prefrontal cortex, where all decisions are made. The direct line, the “red phone”-equivalent, insures that the message of impending danger is not bogged down in the bureaucracy of intervening neurons and centers, requiring approvals all along the way to the brain’s CEO.

As an aside, it makes sense that the amygdala are located in an ancient part of the brain. We are not alone in nature confronting natural enemies –even the lowliest invertebrate needed to get away. Hence the early development of neural fear pathways.

But back to our brain. After all we are not fish or gazelles, we should react more rationally. Indeed, evolution has overlayed the midbrain with a more modern (in evolutionary-time terms) layer of brain called the neocortex. This is the area where thinking in all its forms takes place. And the various neural centers in this layer also feed their input into the prefrontal cortex. Finally, this executive center weighs all the incoming information and makes the final decision regarding the appropriate response.

Sounds pretty good, until you carefully read the small print so to speak. Because the fear reaction has a shorter route to the frontal lobe it reaches there first. The more ponderous, analytical pathway through the neocortex reaches the frontal lobe milliseconds later –an eternity in neural transmission terms.

How decisions are made

Now that the initial fear reaction reached the prefrontal cortex, any subsequent input will modify it. Please note, it will modify the fear reaction, not vice versa. In other words, we may become less fearful once we weigh all of the information, but in the background there is the initial lurking fear. On the other hand, provide a subject with a totally rational problem devoid of all emotional connotation –and she or he will employ their neocortex only. Add later some possible fear factor, and it will be rationally examined and accorded its appropriate weight.

It is not only “who arrives first” that is important. The strength of the signal weighs into the final reaction. A loud noise would normally startle us, but immediately our neocortex adds it contribution: it is only a car backfiring. We relax immediately. But what if the noise signal (not the loudness of the noise, but the fear signal in the brain) is so overwhelming as to cause a panic reaction? Then the feeble signal, in comparison, of the rational brain will be drowned out; too little too late. This is the stuff that PTSD is made of.

And this is the neurobiology that demagogues and fear mongers thrive on.

Are we condemned to be fearful?

You could probably come up with 2 possibilities of modifying the fear component in our reactions, and you’d be right on both of them: increase the speed of the signal through the neocortex, and its strength.

I was once witness to the most amazing sight in a Zimbabwe national park. There was a flock of hundreds of gazelles grazing peacefully in a meadow. At the edge of the meadow a leopard was striding, totally oblivious to the potential prey, as the prey was of him. Was this the realization of Isaiah II’s prophecy of “at the end of time, the wolf shall dwell with the sheep and the lion will lie with the lamb”? No, no miracle here. The gazelles learned from a lifetime experience that a striding leopard does not mean a hungry one. But certain motions, like crouching or running, mean danger. Just to be on the safe side, and to allow the rest of the flock to continue grazing, there was a sentry, usually the dominant male, who stood sentry monitoring every slight movement of the leopard; any wrong move and he would sound a loud alarm. On the other hand, if the gazelles succumbed to fear and started running they would have triggered the hunting behavior in the leopard. Strike one for the neocortex.

What about us? Repeated experience also makes us less prone to fear. The fable of the boy who cried wolf has become a cliché. Saints and prophets used to scare the bejesus out of people. Prophecies of the end-of-the-world in the first millennium provoked a frenzied religious awakening, mass penitence, and of course the requisite pogroms. Who believes now those end-of the-world prophecies, other than some unfortunate souls?

In addition to familiarity, education is a uniquely human activity that should conquer fear. The plague epidemic of 1492 caused massive panic in Europe causing acts of cruelty toward the victims, and of course the requisite pogroms (the Jews brought it). The deadly epidemic of HIV/AIDS cause an initial fear, but very quickly education and reason prevailed. No pogroms, I am happy to report.

What is happening neurobiologically is that with repeated use of the neocortex in response to a similar threat the strength of the signal progressively increases. And, the speed of transmission increases as well, because the “bureaucratic” centers along the way do not have to re-examine a familiar situation with the same thoroughness –they wave it through to the CEO’s office.

The social factor

“Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas [this town doesn’t exist anymore-DM] are on American soil, and under Constitutional law. Not Sharia law. And I don’t know how that happened in the United States. It seems to me there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a foreign system of law to even take hold in any municipality or government situation in our United States”

–  Sharron Angle

Of course we are not simple neurobiological automatons. We are social animals, and that has behavioral consequences. Since early days our societies were organized in small bands, which later grew in size and complexity to form tribes. We were in a fierce struggle for survival, for sources of food, for females for reproduction, for territory. A corollary of that constant struggle was the threat from outside competitors –be it another band or another tribe (or nation, in more modern times). We have developed, by necessity, a deep suspicion of the stranger and the strange. An unfamiliar religion, or custom, or phenomenon –they all spelled danger. Again, familiarity and education tend to dispel the fear. Blacks were viewed with deep suspicion in the North during the civil war and Lincoln, being an astute politician, had to “sell” the Emancipation Declaration to skeptical legislators as a military necessity (black recruits to the Union army). Catholics were viewed as a fifth column for the Vatican (they were called Papists), Jews were accused of controlling everything of consequence (see Gingrich’s diatribe against “Secular Socialism” for a list institutions Jews were supposed to control), and quotas were enforced on Jewish admissions at Columbia, Harvard, among others. Japanese were interned in camps as traitors during WW II. And the list goes on and on.

The pool sharks swim in

This is what fear mongers and demagogues exploit. Our innate instinct of fear, coupled with lack of familiarity and a dismal educational system are the enablers. Add our sense of tribalism –and you’ve got the explosive brew of corrosive discourse, anger and blind hatred.

Where does it all lead? For a chilling view of what is possible, –even likely-I would recommend Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”.

How do we counter it?

With enlightenment. The Jews established Brandeis University in response to the quotas, admitting all qualified students, regardless of race or religion. JFK dispelled the Catholic bugaboo with his sheer charm and communication skills. Japanese Americans fought valiantly on our side, shaming us for generations to come.

Today’s enlightenment will come with education. We need math for the engineers we sorely lack. But we also need it for the mental discipline and critical thinking it instills. We need science education, not only for innovation but for people learning to demand: “show me the evidence”. We need to teach history in a serious way, so we are not doomed to repeat it. We need to teach English so that we can express ourselves in a coherent manner. We need to teach the arts so we can discover our better angels.

If we do all this –our future is bright. If we don’t –the plot against America will become a reality.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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