By Mary O’Brien, M.D.
Have you reached the point where you’re afraid to watch the news? I have. The sight of one human being kicking another sickens me and every other sane person. However, anger, hatred, and violence are not new. They are as old as mankind because they stem from primitive, tribal, and “us versus them” thinking. And lest we think we’re above it all, primitive, tribal thinking occurs daily in neighborhoods, businesses, offices, universities, and political and religious entities around the globe. No one starts out that way. As a poignant lyric from the World War II musical “South Pacific” reminds us, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Perhaps more people in the under-50 crowd can relate to a line spoken by Yoda in the “Star Wars” saga. Cautioning Luke Skywalker about the true enemy, Yoda warns against fear: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hatred, and hatred leads to the dark side.”
That’s not merely a memorable line from a movie. That is profound. Wherever we see evil, darkness, or violence, there is almost always some measure of fear. People fear the loss of their money, their power, their identities, their rights, their beliefs, and their version of “truth.” All of this sounds like a philosophical discussion until we consider the underlying physiology.
Appropriate fear, as part of the fight-or-flight response, is a survival mechanism. It has helped humans and other species to endure for many millennia. Learned fear originates in the amygdala. Repeated, fearful stimuli, if unchecked by higher centers in the frontal and pre-frontal cortices, can rapidly lead to anger and aggression. Simply put, a person can literally develop an angry brain.* The result is an individual who becomes angry too easily and too often. These people overreact to angry feelings, become aggressive whenever upset, and have great difficulty calming down. Allowing oneself to simmer in a sea of angry thoughts, feelings, hormones, and neurotransmitters can rapidly lead to some horrible behavior. We see it every night on the news.
Human physiology is such that anger and empathy are mutually exclusive. Empathy, being a far more highly-evolved emotion, tends to inhibit anger and aggression. And calmness is a pre-requisite for empathy. Long, long ago, in our very own galaxy, someone even wiser than Yoda said, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Perhaps someday the human race will catch on. Until then, don’t go overboard watching the news.