Humans at times seem to be nothing but history stuffed into a bag of bones. But hold on, we have some ability to understand the influence of the past and to consider the choices before us.[i] If we can perceive more of “reality,” then we can choose the high road instead of being hijacked by emotional cries to join the low road. Emotions are contagious. People can lose their identity in an emotional crowd.
How do you keep yourself from being swayed by heightened emotionality?
Can we become more aware of how our all too human reactions to what happened in the past biases our future? Are we being manipulated by others, by social media, by our family and/or friends? For generations, we have been taught who to hate and who to fear and who to follow. Who can observe this neutrally? Or must we take sides continuing the ancient conflicts?
Conflicts in families and nations are an automatic way to absorb anxiety? Things happen, anxiety rises. Symptoms function to bind anxiety. Think of drug abuse as pure anxiety. One generation drinks, the next one fights. What changed? Anxiety took a different form. People are still unable to consider deeper problems. Can striving to be more objective make a difference?
Automatic emotionality can operate out of awareness impacting relationships from personal to international. Emotional events, like wars, linger in our collective mind—just waiting for someone to tell us it is happening again. We have seen the past. Even if we did not live it, there are warnings, photographs, and stories. “Beware! Do not make this or that mistake again!”
Emotional events create a collectivememory. Many people hear from the President that we are in a war against COVID-19. What does the word war conjure up? For those involved in or affected by wars from Iraq and Afghanistan back through Vietnam to Korea and WWII, there are memories of sacrifice, the fear of death, disruption, and winning or losing. Depending on the individual or family’s experience with war, they may have an increase in fear states. Words can increase adrenaline and other fear markers in their brains.
Scientists have zeroed in on an answer to the cost of having our brains change due to the memory of emotional pain. The brain does change for long periods when we are threatened. In a study of rats, emotionally arousing events triggered activity in the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain known to be involved in emotional learning and memory. The interaction then triggers the production of a protein called Arc in neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in processing long-term memory.
[ii] These brain changes increase automatic behavior, decreases the ability to explore the environment, to make realistic choices.
History tells us that after wars we often have greater respect for our allies and try to grant greater human rights to soldiers and women.[iii] The Marshall Plan, which pumped dollars and goods into Europe to aid in recovery is one example. But the American Civil War has never been resolved and old memories and anger live in the population. When anxiety goes up polarization and discrimination increase. A moderate hierarchy can encounter threats and become a civil war. In WWII minorities asked not to be discriminated against in the military. Truman signed the order but that did not stop discrimination. Laws may be passed but over time they are eroded. Hierarchies must be maintained. People react and blame others. Emotions are contagious. The low road is littered with threatening words shoving and pushing us into a destructive past. The GI Bill is an example of this as African American’s ability to purchase homes became limited. The deeper emotional problem of maintaining hierarchies by scapegoating those at the bottom of the social ladder takes place in altering the intent of laws. Some say give up, it is too complicated, this is too big a problem as your zip code is your destiny. Is it?
The hope for a quick fix. Altering long-lasting problems starts with a focus on self. Discrimination may come from both a historical and personal feeling state. But one can work on it. By working on self-being more objective, all kinds of things become less threatening. Perhaps now it becomes easier to evaluate the demands of peaceful demonstrations or the rioters or the militia who have taken over parts of Seattle? Yes, some have hidden agenda’s but others seem more rational as they want laws to change—making police more accountable. But we can see that emotional forces are on the rise and need to be understood.
The background fear may have been unleashed by the Coronavirus “war.” Collective memory-related disputes disturb state relations even though attempts are made to improve relations and overcome differences over how the past is remembered.[iv] How does one go about resolving such things? Must we alter our brains? Might we?
Applying what happens in families to what happens in society. Side-taking, blaming, cut off from family members, those who are different can destroy a family, a business, or a nation. If you learned from your mother that so and so, or (dark-skinned people) are the enemy, or your brother/sister/child/neighbor did not vote the way you voted, what would your reaction be? Can you manage your reaction to differences? For how long?
Can I observe how history-based emotionality creeps out of my bones into my brain? Can I define ways to take responsibility for solving problems without “hating” others? Can I recognize this ancient emotionality for what it is—a way that the emotional system pressures individuals, distributes anxiety unfairly, making war possible, creating hierarchies?
[i] Messages from the retina pass into the optic nerve and are carried to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe. Our visual database (built during childhood) helps us interpret images. https://quizlet.com/36857305/24-communication-with-the-outside-world-study-guide-flash-cards/#:~:text=Messages%20from%20the%20retina%20pass,childhood)%20helps%20us%20interpret%20images.
[iii]Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye by Barbie ZelizerChuck Mertz, host of This is Hell! podcast, talks with Viet Thanh Nguyen about his book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.[iv]https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s41311-020-00219-7