Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

Fear Insults Hope in the Political Arena

Fear fear. It's scary. It's the mind killer.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt could not have read Dune. The epic science fiction novel didn't come out until a good 20 years after Mr. Roosevelt died, but it isn't like Dune said anything new. Roosevelt and Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, both knew a thing or two about fear.

"...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." That was Roosevelt's famous line.

"Fear is the mind killer." That's from Dune.

And as I listen to people on the streets, to the people in my office, to my colleagues and family and even my own children, I can only conclude that there is without question a lot of fear floating around.

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So, according to Roosevelt, this observation—the recognition that fear itself is increasingly present; well, that ought to scare us a lot.

And according to Herbert, with this much fear in the ether, we're committing a kind of mass neuronalcide. That's the best word I can come up with for the slow and insidious extermination of our minds and all that they can do when they work together. I know that a neuron by itself isn't a mind, but I know also that our neurons come together with a hundred trillion connections to create the marvels of the mind, and I know that biologically, fear at best bypasses some of our most noble circuitry, and at worst, fear co-opts our circuitry entirely into the trap of over-simplification.

This is an adaptive response, and we're wrong to blame ourselves for refusing to complicate our thinking when we're frightened. When our brains register fear, we act instinctively and quickly. We don't feel we have the time to take advantage of the gift of higher thinking. Worse even, we think we've thought stuff through when actually we haven't.

Fear fear.

It's scary. It is the mind killer.

Today I got an official e-mail forwarded to me from a colleague explaining that Romney plans to court those who "make millions by jacking up prices at the pump." This colleague wanted me to be afraid of Romney. And you know what? The timing of the already increasing price at my local gas station and this particular note from my colleague can't really be a coincident.

Then, as I read the morning news, I learn that Rick Santorum compared the current state of American affairs to the initially ignored threats of WWII. When he was campaigning for votes he reminded the crowd of the "cancer" Japan was spreading before the War started, of the ways that Europe "was under darkness" without our action and guidance.

I don't dispute for a second the premise that we took too long to pay attention to World War II. But Santorum's message is that by tolerating our current leadership we ignore threats similar to the Third Reich at home. It was a scary and rousing message, even after he took some of it back.

Believe it or not, this post isn't meant to be anti-Santorum or anti-Obama. This post is meant to draw attention to the sleight of hand that politicians from both sides use to garner our favor. They equate fear with hope.

Think about that. Fear is the mind killer, but hope, according to Emily Dickenson, is "the thing with feathers."

Hope takes flight.

In the communicative property of rhetoric, therefore, if fear is the mind killer and hope is the thing with feathers, then we can conclude that that which kills minds increasingly takes flight in the guise of hope. Virtually every political speech I've read or listened to over the last year has combined these ideas with decreasingly distinct boundaries.

Fear yields hope.

Fear is hope.

Sounds like something Orwell would write.

And this is where I get really frightened. I get really frightened when the much more neurobiologically sophisticated attribute of hope is allowed to mingle in linguistic ambiguity with the very neurobiologically primitive attribute of fear. Both attributes are special human qualities, and we need both to govern our actions.

Still, from the perspective of gray and white matter, the distance of biological wiring from fear to hope doesn't stand a chance when we convince ourselves that our fears are the same as our noble aspirations.

How do we stop this, then? What do we do about a process by which we so easily fall prey to the notion that our fears can be our aspirations, that our primitive terror can yield by itself our most admirable dreams?

First and foremost, we should take note of the process itself and SLOW IT DOWN.

We can resist the frenzy. That's what we do with our children when they're frightened. That's what we do when our friends are freaked out and that what any shrink worth his or her salt does as a first order of business.

Our very psychology, and by that I mean the iterative combination of our unique narrative and our nuanced and astounding neuro-circuitry—the place, in other words, where our brains and our minds meet—is under threat.

Make our leaders answer our questions thoughtfully, and then we owe it to each other to thoughtfully ponder their answers.

Fear is the mind killer, Herbert wrote, but he didn't stop there. His protagonist in Dune is defiant. About fear he proclaims, "I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone, I will turn the inner eye to see its path."

He will use his inner eye to understand fear and what it does. From that meditation he will regain his hope.

Roosevelt understood this also. He refused to allow fear to be confused with hope. Fear, he went on to say in his famous inaugural address, is "aimless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes..."

For the sake of our children, let's resist this terror. Let's resist this paralysis and appeal to our unique human civility, to our capacity for reasoned and respectable discourse.

Our minds deserve better than this year's politics have yielded.

Steven Schlozman's novel, The Zombie Autopsies, will be available in paperback in April.

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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