There often comes a moment in the middle of a situation where we know how we should act, the things we should say and what we should be feeling. Yet we don’t actual do or feel any of those things that we should. We go off the rails a bit. Later we are bewildered and don’t know why we acted so out of character. For example, let’s say you are out enjoying an event with your significant other, you excuse yourself for a few minutes to grab a drink or go to the restroom. As you return you see someone talking with them initially you make light of it but as you approach, they both share a hearty laugh and they touch your partner on the shoulder! Instantly and without your permission stress hormones flood your system triggering a cascade of physiological responses in your body. Your heart will pound in your chest as it pushes blood to your vital organs and muscles. Your blood pressure will rise, and your airways will dilate, allowing for higher oxygen intake. Meanwhile, the epinephrine coursing through your body initiates the release of glucose from fats stored in the body, to be used as the energy source for whatever is about to transpire. These actions are initiated at lightning speeds and thus undiscernible to you, the experiencer. Often the reaction will begin before the you even visually understand clearly what is transpiring. As you move closer there is more laughter and you begin triggering the release of cortisol to ensure you stay on alert for the duration. This is the famed fight or flight response; it is how our brain automatically prepares us for battle or to escape danger. When you finally make it to your partner you look over at the person and realize it was a cousin that you had met last Christmas (they are wearing their hair differently or the lighting was off). You take a deep breath and your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to return you to your normal self.
These reactions and responses are of great benefit from a survival standpoint and it is easy to understand why they persist. If you were on the savanna and waited until you fully understood what was happening before you mounted a response, most likely you and your DNA were removed from the gene pool. This also reminds me of the silly videos where someone runs by and other folks start running just because. Thus, quick response and snap judgments were favored in natural selection and it is easy to understand why. From this information some might be quick to conclude that we are designed to be reactive, to make snap judgements, and prone to aggression. On the surface it makes sense and would be a neat and tidy way to wrap things up and just be done. We can’t help it, it’s evolutions fault! Of course, you know it’s not that simple.
In the above scenario we used all three metaphorical layers of our brain. The first is the ancient layer designed for automatic responses and survival. Next is the emotional layer under the control of the limbic system. Lastly the third layer is the cognitive layer, responsible for memory and higher-level thinking. All three of these layers overlap and interact a great deal. Initially the human stress responses were reaction to actual threats. With the addition of the second layer we became capable of producing a stress response from emotions (in the absence of a treat). The third layer allows us to produce a stress response by simply remembering something that caused stress in the past or imagining that someone or some group might be a threat. Yes, all three layers have the ability to send us into tactical mode, layers two and three must do so by running and telling layer one that there is a threat. Again, it would appear that at each stage of our evolution we maintained a highly efficient tactical response to just about anything we decide.
The survival brain, while not always accurate, had real purpose. You encounter a lion you should run, and you should do so without thinking as quickly as you can! That is perfectly reasonable. The problem lies is that the emotional and the cognitive layer can generate that same response with the same physiological response even if no lion is present, but these reactions are not universal. The things that cause your emotional brain and your cognitive brain to send a stress signal differ from person to person, between groups, and countries. Humans are social animals and as such have designed a myriad of social constructs that have great influence on how we interpret the world around us and the dangers therein.
The various social constructs established over the millennia have become known as our individual and collective cultures. What we understand to be culture is all of the collective components of human societies; families, groups, or even entire countries. Culture is a vast term that encompasses so many different aspects of human life including language, to art, customs, food, clothing, religions, rituals, and so much more. Our world perspectives are heavily dependent on our cultural backgrounds and this has been a much debated the topic; nature vs. nurture. Is who we are predetermined or are we products of our environment?
This article is a part of a series focused on the analysis and origins of hate:
Why This Why Now? Published 01.07.2021
What Is Hate? Published 01.14.2021
So, What’s The Plan? Published 01.21.2021
How to Make Mutant Published 01.28.2021
Don’t Take it Personal Published 02.04.21
1. Beck, A. T. (2000). Prisoners of hate: The cognitive basis of anger, hostility, and violence. New York, NY: Perennial Library.
2. Publishing, H. (2011, March). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved February 11, 2021, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
3. Sapolsky, R. (2018). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. London: Vintage.