When I first wrote this post, I knew that there would be more terror, more deaths and more sorrow ahead of us. While it is impossible to make sense of something so horrible, we can explore recent events by reviewing how hatred can re-wire a brain that was born to love and help others.
Every time this happens, it happens to all of us – and is a failure of all of us to connect and communicate.
The flag may be flying high today, but we are all in a state of constant mourning.
These days, it seems that the American flag in our little Arizona community is constantly flying at half-mast. In years past the sight of a flag flying low in honor of the fallen was fairly rare, and prompted questions like “Who died? What happened?” In this terrible and terrifying year, the flag is almost in a permanent state of mourning. And so are we.
Some might say that the global reach of social media is simply making us more aware today of tragedy on other sides of the world. But there is an alarming rise in senseless violent death in every corner of our little planet. In September last year I remembered the horror of 9/11. That November I mourned new deaths in Paris. The great cities of our world are becoming synonymous with terrorist attacks: London, New York, Munich, Nice, Paris, Brussels, Mogadishu, Orlando, Berlin. Here in the U.S., we’ve recently started killing each other, as blacks protest killings by police with the indiscriminate killing of anyone in a police uniform.
I believe in science and the ability of man to become better by conscious choice, so I try to turn to science for solutions, or at least explanations for all the violence. Why are so many of us becoming cold-blooded killers? Why are so many of our children so desperate that they feel the only way to find any sort of personal fulfillment is to kill other human beings? How can strapping on a bomb or firing a rifle into a crowd possibly look like a solution?
This is especially puzzling because it has long been suspected that we are hard-wired to help each other. It makes sense that early humans, threatened by a dangerous world, would band to together to get by as individuals and to ensure the future of the species. Those early humans who were more adept at building these relationships survived to pass on their genes and their altruistic tendencies. The work of Paul Zak is largely built on evidence in the human brain that supports this theory. A recent study at UCLA demonstrated that the more emotionally connected the subjects were to a fictional “needy” person, the more money they were likely to donate to help out. When neuroscientists temporarily suppressed the “impulse” centers of the brain – the amygdala, somatosensory cortex and anterior insula, people made their decisions almost entirely with their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where rational thought is generated. Surprisingly, those subjects gave the least amount of money, maybe because they were better able to rationalize the decision.
On the other hand, subjects who were left with a fully functioning impulse center were far more generous. These brain structures are also our most primitive, having developed in species who precede us in the evolutionary chain, suggesting that we have been hard-wired for altruism, empathy, and caring for others.
How are we to square the discovery of our innate altruistic nature with all these deaths?
Maybe the answer lies in how easy it is today to isolate oneself from others. In a 30-year study, researchers found U.S. college students scored significantly lower in empathy tests than students of previous years. While not proving a causal effect, the reduction in empathy was very closely correlated to the development of the Internet, social media, and virtual fantasy worlds as entertainment. Once someone loses their ability to feel empathy, I imagine that this transformation from a naturally caring creature to a killer happens over time, until one day it makes perfect sense to kill a perfect stranger to make a statement. I’d like to think that all of us reading this sentence right now would be thinking, “You’re right. It is absolutely crazy to kill someone over political differences,” but I know that some of you may be thinking, “Well, maybe under these circumstances ….”
The flag may be flying high today, but we are all in a state of constant mourning. We are mourning the loss of all those innocents killed in these horrible acts. But we are also mourning the loss of something deep within ourselves – we are losing the ability to feel connected to every other human being, in a way that would make it unthinkable to hurt another member of our tribe for any reason – and certainly not for a political statement. I noticed our flag flying high this morning and wondered: “When is the next atrocity coming?” Because we all know it is no longer a question of “if” but only “when.”