Primal fear

An article by Lisa Schonhaar and Gisela Wolf in the UK’s Independent  newspaper entitled “5 Habits of Stupid People that Smart People Don’t Have” gives us something of a framework that might help in our efforts to extract ourselves from our current predicament. 

The predicament I’m talking about is the one we’re left with as we emerge from a pandemic, where the societal devastation we’ll witness over the coming months and years will almost certainly outweigh the direct effects—as traumatic as they’ve been for those affected—of the new coronavirus itself.

These five habits, turned around so that we can focus on the attributes of supposedly intelligent people, are: 

• Own your mistakes, don’t blame others

Accept that others might be right

• Don’t react to conflict with anger and aggression

• Don’t ignore the needs and feelings of others

• Don’t think you’re better than everyone else.

I cannot remember any period in living memory where these attributes have been so suppressed. 

If we’re to use the intelligence we’re gifted with to its full potential, we have to put the frontal lobes of our brain’s cortex—by far the largest part of the brain, and the most recent in evolutionary terms—through its paces, on a regular basis. Those neural networks need to be lit up regularly to get the most of our capacity for rational thought and reasoning, prime functions of the frontal lobes.

By contrast, the evolutionarily ancient midbrain, the relay station of the central nervous system, is like a primitive smoke detector looking for fire; it responds to anything that looks vaguely threatening. 

When we experience fear or stress—especially chronic stress—we disengage our frontal lobes and stop thinking rationally. We become more primitive, more like our ape or even reptilian relatives, casting aside millennia of independent evolution.     

After being exposed to horror stories about an invisible enemy for more than a year, I believe many people have reverted to their primitive brains. They can perform the rudimentary functions to survive, but they lack the ability to see things in context or know what information is missing or uncertain.

Back to the five habits of smart people, let’s see how they could help us, hopefully engaging our frontal lobes in the process.

1. Own your mistakes, don’t blame others

All of us, politicians and world leaders included, have made mistakes when it comes to the pandemic. Where we continue to be forced to accept limitations to our freedom that result from mistaken interpretation—or worse, deliberate misinterpretation—of the science, the sooner we can move on, the better.

2. Accept that others might be right

It’s vital for everyone on all sides to maintain an open mind and avoid censorship of dissenting views. The idea that things are black and white is spurious. There is much uncertainty, shades of gray, around the new human-pathogen interaction and our response to it. 

The silencing of those with contrary views by government authorities and private corporations that control the status quo can only happen if those views are seen as a threat. 

Why are dissenting views not subjected to analytical discourse—in the knowledge that something closer to some kind of truth will emerge? We need to be very concerned about the degree of censorship we’re currently exposed to, and work diligently to reverse it.

3. Don’t react to conflict with anger and aggression

Polarization has become a feature of contemporary society during this Covid era. Forcibly denying views that don’t fit with your own could be seen as a survival instinct, driven by our “lizard” midbrains; let’s eliminate the source of the threat. We need to have respect for all views. Let’s not be slaves to our belief systems, which may be greatly affected by our individual experiences. That includes being exposed to the mainstream media’s narrative on Covid-19.

4. Don’t ignore the needs and feelings of others

We can be very bad listeners, especially once we revert to our midbrains. It would be hard to argue that suspending the right to protest or cast a democratic vote hasn’t denied the needs and feelings of others. Closing the social media accounts of those who have exercised what they thought was their right to freedom of expression is also a denial of a need. 

5. Don’t think you’re better than everyone else

The conspiracy theory tag has become a fantastic tool for cancel culture. People with the power to cancel see themselves as superior, without considering who or what they have canceled, let alone the implications—personal, as well as public. 

We often hear via the mainstream media that we’ve entered an existential crisis. That doesn’t mean we need to retreat to our primitive brains. Let’s do the opposite, expand our horizons on health, and broaden the information and ideas to which we’re exposed. 

Let’s appreciate that there is a huge amount we don’t yet understand. Let’s tune in to the spiritual energy that binds us all together, along with all the other life forms with which we share this delicate planet.

Let’s all try to be a little bit more human.