The Amygdala Strain: fight-or-flight politics

Imagine that you have been fool enough to volunteer to be a chaperone for an eighth-grade field trip. As such, you assume some ownership of the wellbeing of the children in your charge. Now imagine that, as you sit behind the bus driver who taxis you and your cargo to whatever place marks your destination, you notice that the bus you inhabit is careening toward a massive obstruction and closing fast. You try to get the bus driver’s attention, but he’s too busy leading the world’s most tedious rendition of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” You scream and shout and stomp, but the clueless driver just keeps on intoning stupidly, “take one down, pass it around …”

How put-off would you be in those moments before impact? How angry would you be? No – how blood-curdlingly irate would you be?

Here is where we might find some empathy for our right-wing brethren: that is how they feel all the time.

According to a 2011 study of the brains of self-described liberals and conservatives, while liberals have “more gray matter … in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that helps people amygdalacope with complexity[,]” conservatives have larger amygdalas – the “almond-shaped structure[s] deep in the brain that [are] active during states of fear and anxiety.” Where political sanity is concerned, size matters.

The amygdala is sometimes referred to as the human’s “lizard brain.” It is the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response that largely accounts for human survival in the face of mortal threats. The problem for those with oversized amygdalas is that threat perception becomes a confused hash; a human under the sway of a swollen amygdala is rather like a reptile trying to make sense of a butterfly.

To those of us with merely average amygdalas, a butterfly presents as a harmless, fluttering thing that seems more a worthy subject for photography than some kind of swarming beast. But to the amygdally girthsome, a butterfly is like the Mothra of old Japanese movies – a marauding lamp-seeker with designs on near-global destruction. And those of us who can’t see what the conservative sees are like the bus driver who can’t be warned of the oncoming calamity; we are a maddening, blind menace with all our indifference and folly.

The conservative is afraid of everything: the gays, the Mexicans, the Muslims, the brown people, the godless Atheists, the filthy homeless, the crazy mental cases, The Other. Around every corner, under every bed, behind every curtain, beneath every manhole, there is someone or something the conservative sees as an obvious threat – knows is an obvious threat. And the only thing more maddening than the threat itself is the liberal who can’t or won’t see it.

“Look out!” shouts the teabagger while the bus closes in on a swarm of gnats, “They’re going to kill us!” And the response form the liberal comes: “98 bottles of beer on the wall …”

Empathetic though we be, we DISSENT from fear-based impulses and ideas.

How about you?

by Brendan Beery


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