22A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.

Fright Control - Evolution of Calm under Crisis
November 16, 2007

In 1929 Walter B. Cannon PhD, president of the American Physiological Society and chairman of the Department of Physiology, Harvard University, coined the phrase “Fight or Flight.”  It is still used by clinicians and psychologists to describe two basic human responses to threat.   But a recent article published by the Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine suggests it may need updating.  The new interpretation includes “fright and freeze” as primary added responses to threat.  The more accurate human reaction is for a subject to freeze in fright, and then choose flight or fight.  This updated analysis is in keeping with our consideration of the book “Shock Doctrine”  by Naomi Klein.  While we have not yet read the book, we have listened to Ms. Klein speak about its substance.  Simply put, Ms. Klein draws parallels between right leaning economic policies and  human response to shock.  Her thesis is based on the vulnerability of individuals and societies during crisis.  And this is what we find so fascinating - the politics of crisis.  Or more to the point, the fearful new world of “Fright Control.”

While Ms. Klein investigates the right wing politics implemented on national levels following various crises (Pinochet’s Chile, the Falklands War, hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and Iraq), we want to look more closely at the effects of crisis on human psyche.  What becomes abundantly clear after watching Klein’s short video on “medical” shock therapy, is human vulnerability following cataclysmic events.  As Cannon suggested in 1929, confronted by a grave threat human beings react with repeated patterns of behavior.  They first react with fear in the form of tonic immobility or “freezing.”  That is, they simply do nothing.  They will stand in awe, pupils dilated not unlike a deer in headlights.  The greater the shock of natural or man made disaster, the greater the awe humans respond with.  It can be a hurricane, a wild fire, a suicide bomb, or an exploding building.  Our typical reaction is to freeze, stare, shut down normal physiological function in the primitive hope that the threat will overlook us.  But that is not likely in the present day.

As Ms. Klein points out, this state of shock ripens the human mind and collective consciousness to all manner of exploitation.  In the face of extreme terror a clever thief can easily ask a room full of people to hand over their money and jewels.  Not because he is the threat - rather because he assumes the role of an antidote to the threat.  And he claims that he is the only one who can get them out alive.  So his services are invaluable and those wanting to live will quickly part with their wallets or civil rights or resources.  The shock produces fear which immobilizes logical higher brain function resulting in instant herd mentality - human animals ready to accept absurd directives. 

What we find interesting in Klein’s premise are the suggestions to combat the doctrine of shock.  Her correct view is that shock, like other physiological responses, wears off.  As time moves forward past the shocking event, human beings regain their sense of balance and perspective and logical brain function.  We begin to realize that we have over or under-reacted to the experience of extreme stress and trauma.  But we are not permanently disabled.  Like the deer in headlights we have been temporarily frozen into complicity - but not run over.  And this suggests one good way to fight against the doctrine of shock.  To train ourselves to reject the typical pattern of reaction.  To inform ourselves with knowledge that prepares us for extreme circumstances and crisis.  Preparation by knowledge defuses much of the patterned shock reaction.  We can and will rise above our primitive fear reactions and maintain thoughtful, cogent response.  As FDR so wisely cautioned, “The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself.”

Human evolution takes an immediate leap forward when we fully confront our predisposition to fear.  But just knowing that the disposition exists is strong medicine.  And being aware of our vulnerability and of those who would exploit it is a powerful tool.  All of which leads to one immutable idea: Knowledge is power.