June 23, 2012
When I was thirty-four, a friend and I were on our way to work at the local hospital in her car, about 6:30 on a dark, rainy winter morning. We had just crossed the first track of a series of three train tracks and were on the second track when we heard a train whistle – very, very near. I turned to see if the train had crossed the first track, behind us and realized that, wherever the train was, the guard gate had come down behind us, trapping us on the tracks. By the time I turned around, the train was right in front of us and we could not stop in time to avoid hitting it.
The whole episode, between the time I realized we were going to collide and when both the car and the train came to rest with the car crumpled into the train took only a minute, at most. Of that minute, I remember clearly only four things: an image of the hood of the car crumpling as it moved inexorable forward against that monstrous object; the fear that my four-year-old son would become motherless that morning; my chin hitting the dashboard as I was thrown forward, then backward by the force; a curious moment of calm in the midst of the chaos in which my brain rapidly shuffled through any possible steps I might take to survive the crash.
I later found out that the train had started out from a station less than a mile away which meant that although it was going too slow to trigger the guard gate before we were on the tracks, it allowed it to stop quickly enough that we did not become a very messy addition to the side of the train as it went by.
Having survived that long-ago crash with minimal physical damage, the thing that stuck with me the longest and struck me as most peculiar, was that odd moment of clarity where my mind calmly shuffled through the possibilities for survival.
As it turns out, there is a reason for that moment of calm in the midst of chaos. So far as we understand the process, when we face the possibility of imminent danger, the amygdala (two little knobs of neural tissue at the ends of the two hippocampii in the “emotional” part of the brain) initiate a series of responses, deep within the brain, that result in fear and the familiar fight-or-flight response, as the body prepares. But, there is also a pathway from the amygdala to the basal pre-frontal cortex where groups of cells with two types of serotonin receptors reside. One type of receptors are inhibitory and one are excitatory. These cells connect with the pre-frontal cortex – that area of the brain behind our foreheads where planning and decision making occur. Depending on the number of cells and presumably the ratio of one type to another, this pathway allows that planning part of the brain to carry out that moment of clarity in which it can communicate with the emotional part of the brain as it gears up for full fight or flight mode. This allows us to evaluate whether the danger is real, whether that danger is immanent and, if so, what we might be able to do about it.
The number of these receptors and, therefore, some of our ability (or inability) to “reason” with our fears, is controlled by our genes. But, as we are often reminded, genetics is not destiny. It only provides the framework for how one brain may differ from another in its response, or how the same brain may respond from one perceived danger to another.
When I was five, a man I had come to trust as a father figure raped me. Because the five-year-old brain is immature and those connections between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex have only begun to develop, each part of the brain was left to its own response after the rape was over. The thinking part of the brain decided I had done “something bad” that triggered the response from that father figure and, unable to decide exactly what, walled away the memories until, presumably, the adult me would figure it all out. The emotional part of the brain, cut adrift, decided to respond with a generalized, chronic anxiety, bouts of depression and periodic panic attacks in certain situations that triggered those half-buried memories. I went on this way, stumbling through life from one “dangerous” situation to another for the next forty years, until a seemingly benign incident triggered the terrifying sequence of flashbacks and the flight-or-fight response that finally sent me into therapy.
Over the next eight years, I explored what had happened back then, the responses I had made that had sabotaged nearly every intimate relationship I’d had over the years – including those with the family I loved and had every reason to trust. I began the conversation between those two parts of my brain that the five-year-old had been incapable of at the time of the rape. And, I began to understand how necessary, in evaluating potentially dangerous situations, that conversation is.
I tell you these two stories from my own experience, with their two very different responses, because in this time of rapid change and slow collapse, we are bombarded with messages of danger – from our government, our financial system, our political and religious institutions, even the scientific community – and urged into a constant state of anxiety and fear. Imminent terrorist attacks, imminent financial collapse, imminent environmental collapse, imminent energy collapse, imminent moral collapse.
It’s not that these dangers are not real. The slow collapse of the global economy under the pressure of diminishing energy supplies (despite all our new energy finds, we are not keeping up with the decline of older, larger energy fields) is real. The ballooning costs of climate change and environmental degradation – physically, emotionally and economically – are real. What we are doing to the earth’s capacity to sustain us is real. The slow collapse of the American Empire under the political and economic cronyism that has eaten away at its heart is real. The desire of terrorist groups to strike back at us- not for our own “freedoms”, but for our propping up of regimes that have destroyed their freedoms for the benefit of the Empire – are real. The moral questions raised by our economic and political responses to these dangers are real. Even the question as to whether or not we have the ability or the will to address these changes is real.
It’s that there is a greater danger in the face of this constant bombardment of fear messages. Whether that bombardment is a deliberate ploy by those in power, in order to maintain that power, or an innate response to their own fears as they see the collapse of that power, it rushes the rest of us into the danger of disconnecting those two parts of the fear response our brains have evolved.
In that disconnection, we are left with a powerful fear response not tempered with the rationality of the thinking brain and a “thinking brain” that has settled for a series of economic, political, scientific and, yes, religious/moral ideologies that leave us unable to ascertain whether the danger is real and imminent and, if so, what we can realistically do about it.
We are not five-year-olds at the mercy of an undeveloped brain physiology. We are adults. Whatever our individual genetic legacy, we can teach our brains to reengage in that conversation in the face of our fears. There are no easy answers. Our ideologies will not save us. But, whether our leaders choose to set their political, economic, religious or technological ideologies aside and reconnect or not, we must.
The dangers are real; the fears they engender are real. How imminent to each of us those various dangers are and what each of us do to increase our chances of surviving those dangers depends on how willing we are to use both parts of the fear response our brains have evolved to cope with them. To fear, blindly, or to fear with informed responses. That is, indeed, the question.