The Senate Report, Torture, & Anatomy of Fear

Although at least one theory of fear arrays the basic emotions on a color wheel, it’s questionable to symmetrize them, because emotions appeared at different points in the evolution of the central nervous system. There is some evidence that reptiles experience pleasure, including one story (citation missing) of an Australian crocodile that surfed for no good utilitarian reason.

The human brain, like that of all mammals, is an example of Ernest Haeckel’s famous dictum, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, which is to say, the development of the individual recapitulates the evolution of the species. Modern biology discredits Haeckel, but this is because of a scientific penchant for exactness, and the unpopularity of poetry. The further one steps back from the details, the more of Haeckel remains. Human embryos have gills. Before they have gills, they are blastocysts, when there is little to distinguish them from primitive invertebrates. I leave it to your curiosity why Haeckel’s theory is not literally true.

The mammalian brain is built in concentric shells. The innermost, the “old brain”, is similar to that of reptiles. The new brain, the cortex and neocortex, appear in mammals. In modern theories of consciousness, it’s popular to correlate it with a neural loop of self-observation that involves both the old brain and the new brain. This has some backup from real time PET (positron emission tomography) experiments involving anesthesia. This goes against the older idea that consciousness derives from a pin-point homunculus located just behind the eyeballs. Consciousness, like life itself, is a process, not a thing.

It’s nice when theory precedes and is supported by experiment. Douglas Hofstatdter expressed something like this in Godel, Escher, Bach, published 1979 and really laid it on I Am A Strange Loop, published 2007. What is not so nice is that fear, which even fish appear to feel, is rooted in the old brain, which is definitely still in the loop. As part of the loop, the old reptilian brain is critiquing every moment of conscious existence. (One bit of research suggests that a man’s tie actually represents the colorful sagittal crest of some birdlike male reptiles.)

Because it is so ancient, fear is the most problematic emotion. Uniquely, fear can be the object of itself, which may be why fear has a tendency to run away with itself.   While the  neocortex tries to reason things out, the old brain demands the response it is programmed to give. The reptilian nervous system is characterized by rigid, programmed responses.  The general scheme is that new brain modulates, directs, and suppresses those responses.

What wisdom does the old brain have? None. In response to fear, it offers only two choices: fight or flight. It also offers the instinct of survival. The new brain couldn’t care less, as Archimedes came to briefly rue. On the other hand, airplane test pilots discovered that, to survive, it was vital to conquer (suppress) fear. They had The Right Stuff.

This might seem like a lot of discussion about a four-letter-word, but the causes of history, no matter how rationally argued, are largely complexities with primitive roots of hate and greed. Love, you ask? There was only one Cleopatra. Margaret Thatcher doesn’t count.

Fear is a bias on the human brain, on and against all rational decision making, the result of a bit of neural inheritance about 500 million years old.  For most people, for something to be an active object of fear, it has to have a presence or sensual, visceral element.  Genuine threats, which are known only abstractly, tend to be ignored. The neurological threat matrix is wired for a primitive world of phobias: acrophobia, agoraphobia, starvation, poisonous food, aggressive males, dangerous animals, etc.

The old brain script is rigid: Arousal, stress reaction, fight or flight, and, survival permitting, relaxation and recovery from stress. The stress reaction of an organism, with secretion of adrenaline and corticosteroids, cannot be maintained, or the organism dies. We can’t have continuous nine-elevens. The public has become acclimatized, barely more fearful than before 9/11. After all, nothing massive has happened in 13 years.

This presents a problem for policy-makers.  If a threat has to be intellectualized, it is hard for the public to grasp. We could sidestep hard thinking with sensual portrayal of the threat, but then the old brain kicks in with primitive responses, which we call hysteria, “exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement, especially among a group of people.” Was Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup right? We can’t handle the truth? Or is the truth manipulated to enslave us?

We are on the horns of a dilemma with multiple instances. Edward Snowden disclosed NSA  warrantless surveillance, monitored, perhaps ineffectually by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that by eluding “checks and balances”, arguably fails to safeguard a “natural right”, the right to privacy. It is also arguable that NSA warrantless surveillance is or was a vital defense against terror. The qbit of quantum computing opens our eyes to the possibility that Snowden can be a hero and a traitor at the same time. If not in one sentence, certainly in the same paragraph.

C.I.A. torture is more visceral than NSA/Snowden, undefended by evidence that it worked. Dick Cheney’s temperament comes a lot closer to Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup. But in 2003, little conjuring was needed to summon the ghost of 9/11. He says, “I would do it again in a minute.” As to his motives, two things can be excluded, money and fame. That leaves fear.

It seems there is some gap-space between the touchstones of  public safety, ethics, law, and human decency. In times of extreme threat, we wander in it like travelers lost in a forest. When danger recedes, we slap ourselves and return to the way things should be. Every war is accompanied by a loss of civil liberties. When the war is over, they are restored with vague regrets. But this time, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Groucho Marx, always a man of principle, said, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” Are you a person of principles, or are you intuitive and unprincipled? Here’s a mandatory homework exercise to help you discover yourself. Draw a Tic-tac-toe board. The nine squares represent combinations of threat-level and ethics.

The vertical axis, representing threat, has three entries, corresponding to the three rows of the Tic-tac-toe board. The first is “Clear and Present Danger”, meaning, of something really horrific, such as the destruction of L.A. The second, middle row, contains a “maybe”, a scenario of all kinds of intermediate proportions. The third, “low probability”, equates to the weatherman’s “sunny day” symbol, with isolated tornadoes.

The horizontal axis, representing how far you are prepared to go to protect the public, has these labels: “Anything Goes”, (which can be refined by you), “Stretch the Law”, and “Read him Miranda.”  There are nine combinations. Put an “X” in every square that combines a threat level and a response of which you would approve. Disapprove a square with an “O”. Don’t leave any blank. This is due on Friday, when we will compare our answers with Justice Scalia’s.

Next: But what could there possibly be to be afraid of?