A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fear as Adaptive Device and Political Instrument

Preamble: In today’s world we identify a variety of “primary” emotions, and many shades of the primary ones.  We even lay out an emotion wheel like a color wheel and sometimes bend the wheel into a cone to model both the quality and quantity of emotion.  But like the color wheel there are basically two forms of emotion just as there are warm and cool colors: the emotions of approach/attraction and the emotions of avoidance/rejection – this is how we live, how life functions; we try to move toward objects and situations that benefit the living condition and try to move away from (or remove) objects and situations that endanger the living condition: the rest is enigmatic detail.  The primary emotion of approach is a feeling of wellbeing.  The primary emotion of avoidance is fear.  And just as successfully negotiating an approach can morph into whole varieties of related feelings, situations that first and foremost begin with fear tumble through a number of related states depending on how events progress.

Human bodies do not bring the whole profusion of emotional states into the world, rather we bring relatively simple patterns of motivated approach and motivated avoidance to the new complexities of “modern” life; it is these complexities that organize our basic emotional simplicities into the apparent patterns of emotional expression exhibited today.  Emotions have always been the interaction of a few physiological states with a variety of environmental events; the formation of emotional states without immediate and clear environmental referents is, at base, destructive and pathological.

There is slow fear and there is fast fear.  There is unforeseen fear and there is strategic fear.  Yet, all move in the body and mind similarly, through the basic design of this physiological ‘emotional’ state.  Fear is simply the organizing force and design of the body, mental processes and (for social animals) community for response to potential damage.  Danger that has no premonition only has consequences: a floor collapses from under you and you control your fall as best you can; “fear” comes later.

Slow fear and fast fear are part of our evolutionary history.  Dangerous animals, plants and situations are in the world – dangerous meaning that animals and plants are either adept at protecting themselves or are adept as predators, and that physical forces, like gravity or lightening, can create harmful situations. Slow fear mediated caution and fast fear organized immediate personal and social action, importantly, (almost always) in response to real dangers.

Unforeseen fear and strategic fear are largely new, meaning that these origins of physiological fear states were not a significant part of the evolution of the fear response. Having a deep and intimate knowledge of one’s environment and the highly probable patterns of life obviates unforeseen fear, and the “all for one and one for all” adaptive structure of hominin tribal communities greatly limited strategic fear as a social device.

The balance of reality based fears, formed from recognizable environmental sources, to undefined fears has been turned on its head.  There are few occasions today of environmentally perceived slow fears organizing caution within a community, rather amorphous states of fear predominate for which no meaningful action is generally recognized as effective.  Fast fears have few predicable sources and few appropriate responses – often the most effective response is to be unafraid; not an especially natural response.  “All we have to fear is fear itself,” is a recognition of the existence of strategic fear.

A major consequence of this is that fear has gotten a bad name.  Environmentally based slow and fast fears are perfectly fine emotions, tuned to the conditions and occasions of ‘normal’ life.  This is so true that many people would not even call much of what is motivated by fear in these originating forms as fear at all.  More and more today the idea of and word fear is restricted to the “unnatural” fears, unforeseen and strategic; we are afraid of what we do not know, what we cannot see coming and what we are told to be afraid of.  Just how unhealthy this is for individuals and societies is increasingly clear.

Physiologically, fear is not designed to be a constant condition, but rather a transitional state that motivates action and, thus, dissipates the fear response through adaptive behaviors.  Two examples: (1) Slow fear: I learned as a small child to walk in the swamps and palmetto/pine barrens of central Florida with great caution; there be dangerous snakes in remarkable abundance! And yet, I, and my friends, walked and played there with ease.  A tiny rush of cautionary fear would color the moment if the ground could not be seen ahead of the next step forward, and immediately and completely dissipated when a palm leaf was moved or other action was taken to disclose the area around the advancing footfall. (2) Fast fear: I once surprised a sleeping mountain lion in the New Mexico wilds, both of us on foot. The quality of my attention and speed of thought was pushed up at least an order of magnitude for the ½ an hour or so that the lion and I played primal tag through the juniper/piñon woodlands.  By the time it quit following me – when the ground cover became more open – I was spent; all that was left was exhilaration, and I had never felt any emotion that I had previously known by the name of fear.

Unforeseen fears are things like the random acts of “violence” for which no meaningful precautions can be taken; it is especially these fears that are useful strategically.

The essence of strategic fear is not that nothing can be done, but that ‘you’ can do nothing while some ‘other’ can mitigate the danger.  This is a most unnatural condition; living things have always had the tools to take on environmental realities, individually or as social collectives and, when as social collectives, individuals were full partners in the responses to the dangers.  This is obvious from the simple fact that living things exist as individual phenotypic representatives of their genotype (think it through)!  Unforeseen and strategic fear pervert this 4 billion year old reality.

The essence, therefore, of strategic fear is the separation of individuals from the information needed to evaluate and prepare for dangers.  This allows two options to those who position themselves to use the fear response of others for their advantage (the nature of strategic fear).  The first is to control information about real situations and the second is to manufacture dangers that do not exist in reality.

There is simply no natural reason that the realities of the situations that we face cannot be made clear to all the participants in society – the only reason is that strategic fear is so useful to a select few.  If the people cannot act individually and as communities on the actual slow and fast dangers that face us, as individuals and communities, then there will be no future.

(The next essay soon to come: populations in states of strategic fear vs. populations in states of wellbeing.)

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