Fear, Politics and the Limbic Brain

I work a lot with anxiety disorders and the ways people try and cope with them. In fact, I produce a podcast called Mindful Recovery.  The first episode I ever did on that podcast was about the emotional brain and how fear can take hold, trigger the limbic region of the brain and actually shut off the part of the brain we use to make reasoned rational decisions.  I wanted to try and explain, from a brain science perspective, the appeal of politicians like Donald Trump.  The ways that they actually trigger the brain by generating fear to control those who would follow out of that fear based place.

The map below shows you the regions of the brain involved in the limbic system.  The most important parts for our discussion here are the thalamus and the amygdala.

The thalamus scans all of your senses for any danger that might be out there.  It is constantly involved in looking for danger.  When it senses danger it alerts the amygdala which then triggers the fight, flight or freeze response and prepares the body to respond to the danger.  The amygdala increases heart rate, peaks all of your senses, makes your breathing rapid and shallow, causes you to sweat and tenses your muscles so you are ready to react.  This is a great response to have if you’re being chased by a tiger.  Not so good if you’re just shopping in Target.

In addition to prepping the body, the amygdala takes over and makes responsive decisions for the body during this heightened alert phase.  It cuts the frontal lobe out of the decision making process to increase reaction time.   This leads to “Knee Jerk” reactions and responses that are primarily fear driven.  

Helping my clients to learn to breathe by using mindfulness as a daily tool so that they are making better decisions is much of my work.  

We can reverse the process of anxiety simply by regulating the body. Simply by slowing our breath and focusing on the rise and fall of our chest we can make the limbic region release its grip and begin making better decisions.

So what does this have to do with politics and racism?

Fear is a prime motivator.  It is the basic survival drive, for all creatures on this earth including us humans. This limbic response is something that advertising and politicians have learned to use in order to get us to buy into what they are selling.  Buy this facial cream, buy my diet plan, buy this car and you will never be judged again.  You will fit in...the fear of social exclusion...of not being enough will be over if you just buy my product.  Stick around through the commercials so you can get the story from the 10 O’clock news about how to protect yourself from terrorism, or disease, or whatever is threatening.  They are generating fear and waiting for that response to shut off your rational brain so that you will buy the promises they are selling.

Politically people are much more likely to vote for candidates who promise to protect them if they can manage to trigger the fear response first.  

Two things happen in this mode.  First, the politician or party seeking your vote will attempt to convince you that the world is no longer safe.  You are under attack from “them”.  It doesn’t matter whether the “them” is Mexicans coming across the border to rape and murder you or Islamic radicals sneaking in to blow you up, or people with dark skin who are bent on killing cops and destroying the fabric of our society.  

The point is to trigger your fear and get the limbic region of the brain working so that the frontal lobe is not.  Once that is established you will buy whatever they sell as long as they are promising it will keep you safe.  This is the reason that every fascist leader in history has begun their extermination by getting rid of intellectuals and the free press.  More educated individuals are more likely to question the fear tactics and not allow the fear response to take over.  Intellectuals and rational thinkers might also lead you out of that limbic place back into rational decision making by delaying that fear response through reasoned debate.  They might provide you with enough thought that you take a regulated breath or two and start thinking with the front part of the brain.

For me, this also explains how conservative Christians can follow someone like Donald Trump.  Their fear is simply greater than their faith.  I grew up in the Ozarks, the buckle of the Bible belt in Southwest Missouri.  I am no stranger to fear based religion.  I have watched as people who claim to follow a Christ that spoke primarily about compassion and love, screamed at people who did not share their views, or sexual identities, or whatever.  Screamed out of fear of what might happen to their world if “different” were allowed to infringe on it.  In their fear they lost touch with His message of compassion and love and they clung desperately to any idea or demagoguery that promised to keep them safe. This is particularly sad and disappointing when you understand that what God says more than anything else throughout the Bible is “Fear Not”.  He understood how easily we fall into that limbic response and start making bad decisions.

The entire RNC convention, culminating with Trump’s speech last night, was designed and directed at creating this kind of fear.  Whipping up the boogey man to keep the children in line.

As a therapist, I am proposing that we all take a moment to breathe.  To stop listening to those who are invested in generating fear and start just breathing. Taking that extra breath might just open up the forebrain enough to make a better decision.  

Maybe it doesn’t make sense that all Mexicans are rapists because what I see are hard working people doing the best they can to save and provide for their children.  Maybe it doesn’t make sense that all Muslims are trying to blow me up because the vast majority I know are also trying to escape the fundamental terrorism of a few threatening the rest of the free world.  Maybe not all black skinned people are gun toting cop killers, because the ones I know are just trying to get by and stay safe in an increasingly unsafe for them world.

My suggestion before we choose a candidate, is breath and choose without fear.

Take a little time and isolate yourself from the rhetoric and breathe.  Breathe until the limbic region lets go and you can make a rational choice.


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