Disregard fear to find true human potential

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Special to the Monitor

In the Nov. 29 column entitled Obama Refugee Argument Fails as Democrats Desert, Mr. Lederman and Ms. Hennessey raised an interesting question when they noted that the President’s “dressing down” of those calling for a ban on Syrian refugees could be seen as a “dismissal of legitimate and widespread
anxiety.” In their article, the authors address the emotional responses to
emotional statements by politicians, and they do this by using emotional
wording to cue additional emotional responses in their readers.
I realize the difficulty of addressing, in a logical way, the question I see raised by this article, since my question deals with how we react
emotionally to what happens around us and to what others say.
To keep from sliding further into the emotionality of these topics, allow me a few
paragraphs to review how emotions come to play in our decision-making processes.
It is clear from the neuroscientific quarters that, aside  from questions such as “what is this key for” or “what is two plus two,” we make decisions through our emotional systems.
The complexes of neurons that make up our emotional systems have changed little since the time of the common ancestors we shared with rats and lizards.
Emotional systems serve us much like the operating systems of computers.
They make decisions affecting an animal’s survival based on associations
perceived between objects and occurrences within the environment and how
they benefit or harm the animal.
Their code is fairly simple: anything benefitting the animal is pursued and that which may harm it is avoided. Aside from the feelings they produce, these processes happen subconsciously.
The emotional system that controls desire helps an animal find its
resources. The emotional system that controls fear helps an animal avoid
dangerous conditions. The algorithmic codes needed for the survival of lower animals are fairly simple and are sufficient as long as the ‘good and bad’ options presented to the animal are few in number.
As life becomes more complex, the options for success and failure grow
exponentially, and more complex algorithms are needed. Unfortunately, it
appears that further development of the emotional systems themselves is
significantly limited. Nature can’t just build a new operating system from
scratch. But it can add more RAM, and it did.
The result we know as the cortical areas of the brain. The cortex provides
the emotional systems the ability to review more options simultaneously.
This ability has grown exponentially in primates and man, takes a bit more time, and is more accurate, but the final decisions affecting our survival and social behavior are still made by the subconscious emotional systems.
The connection between the amazing analytical areas of the human neocortex and our emotional systems must travel through the prefrontal cortex, which is not fully developed in humans until the late ‘20s.
If certain prefrontal cortical areas are damaged, you will find yourself in a world of endless options without the ability to choose any of them and will be unable to function successfully in your community. Even after a full and healthy development, the neocortex defaults to the emotional systems.
We can learn to override the default mechanism to some extent, but it takes years, a lifetime in fact, of learning through humble introspection how our emotions control our thoughts and behaviors. In the unaware individual, emotions dictate thoughts, decisions, and actions at a level similar to that of a rat.
Both politicians and op-ed writers know how to use words to generate emotional responses in their readers towards the end, I’m sure, of swaying their thinking. Phrases such as, “Apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans…” and, “It is against the values of our nation and the values of a free society…” are used, knowingly or not, to elicit emotional responses.
To avoid making purely emotional decisions, we need to allow the cortical
areas a chance to do their thing. This is next to impossible when we let the emotional speeches of others dictate our thinking. When we feel “dressed down” and that our “legitimate” anxiety is being dismissed – when our subjective emotions are called to act – it’s next to impossible to objectively look at the problems we must face.
Now to the question I see presented by the article: what role does “legitimate and widespread anxiety” have in making decisions regarding the acceptance of Syrian refugees in America? My answer is the same I gave to one of my granddaughters who had become fearful as she approached a difficult part of a hike.
“Fear is a good thing,” I told her. “It tells you to be careful. When you understand this, you can let your fear go and consider what it was that made you fearful. Then you are more able to see the best path and find the courage to take that path.” My 6-year-old granddaughter thought about it for a couple seconds, made a small adjustment, and proceeded ahead without any further encouragement from me.
Anxiety is a state of fear. All fear is legitimate for the one experiencing it, whether or not it is shared by others. But that doesn’t mean we should act out of fear. In fact, when we do, we narrow the door to the neocortical areas of our brain and we begin to react like rats.
When we find the courage to step away from fear, we can begin to act from our human potential. We can see then that we truly have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Bob Fuselier is a Los Alamos veterinarian with a special interest in animal behavior and human violence. He is the author of the book “From Violence to Freedom: The Short-Term and Long-Term Survival Strategies of Our Emotional Systems.”