Ladies and Gentlemen Choose Your Hysteria

We live in an age of escalating hysterias. Beside “rape culture” and related feminist hysterias men and women can choose we can choose today from “stranger danger”, the “war on drugs”. the “war on terror”, the “crime and punishment hysteria”  and “helicopter parents” (because there’s a paedophile behind every pole and around every corner).  In the past we could choose “satanic ritual abuse”, “alien abduction” or “multiple personality disorder”. Further back in history we could choose the “the red scare”. “McCarthyism” or back far enough we could choose “witch hunts”. There’s a hysteria for every need and every age.

Where does it come from. It seems to be episodic. Society functions for a while without a major panic but a switch is thrown with the correct alignment of social and cultural factors. Once switched on these hysterias seem to take a collective animal life of their own. My untested hypothesis is that this behaviour touches on the deeply biological in the primeval regions of the brain.

In our brains are repertoires of reactions which are triggered by environmental stimuli and these mostly lay dormant until activated. These are like emergency fire drills which are enacted in the event of a fire. How to react and what to do is automatic. Most of the time the “red hat” hangs on a hook unused. These are adaptations with obvious survival advantages which predates humanity and possibly mammals. As humans separated from the other apes our cerebral cortex exploded in size but it did not replace the older lymbric systems in our brain. In fact the cerebral cortex rationalises our deeper instincts as they manifest in justifications. Racism is simply genetic competition but was once rationalised into race theories with agendas like eugenics as the result. Today these instincts can also be maladaptive in particular situations where our environment differs from the natural environment we evolved in. Reactions such as flight, fight or freeze in response to danger.  The advantages of the first 2 are obvious and analogues in today’s circumstances are easy to  to imagine. The last one is less obvious. Yet in nature this is a common reaction to danger. A deer freezes on the approach of a large cat and becomes less visible to predators who are attuned to movement, especially if camouflage is also part of the prey animal’s defences. An analogue in contemporary life would be ignoring bills which need to be paid as the human animal enacts this repertoire of behaviour from a deep biological past. It is irrational to think that the metaphorical wolf at the door will pass if we just ignore him and freeze.  Some may remain dormant for an entire life but it may be that at least some must be exercised at various times. Some of these repertoires will come to the fore of our consciences.  We know how to be frightened, panicked, joyful, depressed, confidant, vigilant, optimistic or pessimistic and so on.  We know how to feel and react when bullied, humiliated and “put in our place”.

You may wonder what possible evolutionary advantages can there be to being depressed or pessimistic. Back in the cave days of cold winters, little game prey and short days a claustrophobic environment of a cave for most of winter could be depressing. This means we would not be motivated to venture outside or do anything very much  which is  the best response in that environmental context. A reduced food supply and extreme weather are not the ideal circumstances in which to feel highly motivated and energetic. Time instead to tell stories, make music and paint on the cave walls. It is interesting that today creative people like artists and writers are frequently prone to depression. To be optimistic may be fruitful in one environmental context but delusional and dangerous in another context because optimism is really a special sort of delusion. The positive psychology writer Martin Seligman is the normalisation of a potentially dysfunctional delusion and something. It is a Procrustes straitjacket for all people in all circumstances as has been described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. In fact it has been determined that the colour blue of the sky has a special effect on the brain, a claiming cheerful effect and a slight feeling of well being. A blue sky signals it’s time to get active and go outside and do things. Time to make it all happen. We all know this effect. In its exaggerated form in some people it gives rise to “seasonal affective disorder” and is known by the rather apt acronym of SAD. Nature doesn’t care that we feel happy all the time. Only that we reproduce and behave in a way to maximise our chances of reproducing.

We all know how to feel as victims. This is in direct contradiction of the consensus narrative of victimhood by feminists and other theorists. That is one can not identify with the suffering of another in a less privileged circumstances or or a particular class of people. That without direct experience of racism or sexism no one can identify with the experience. I propose instead that the feelings stemming from these deprecating and humiliating experiences are not made by experiences but are already present and waiting to be activated as already pre-existing realities in the primal areas of our brains. This is not created simply because of the existence of power relationships but is a repertoire which is realised when activated. We can learn a second language, an occupational skill or a musical instrument but we do not learn how to feel bullied or feel discriminated against. For this reason victim cards are counterfeit licences to exclude other opinions.

An extreme behaviour triggered the environment is post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).  MRI scans show that people with PTSD have signatures of physical changes in the brain in common. PTSD is an extreme expression of a repertoire which is in effect etched into the brain a bit like an image burned on to a screen which has bot been refreshed. Nature doesn’t care for our personal comfort, only that we reproduce. The resulting dysfunctionality manifesting in society is useful for surviving for example an attack by a woolly rhino or a battle ground where a bullet may end your life any minute. The continuation of fear, the suspicion, the paranoia, heightened vigilance and the acting out aggressively in non threatening circumstances is maladaptive, automatic and difficult or impossible to turn off post the event.  A miserable survivor can still reproduce and that for evolution is the point.

Add to this the needs of humans and the exploded cerebral cortex. I believe humans have a biological need to solve problems, another repertoire which is often activated. The advantages are obvious as witnessed by improvements in our lives but just as all other repertoires can cause problems so this important repertoire can become a compulsive dysfunctional habit with societal consequences in macro. Once we start hunting for solutions we also go hunting for problems for those solutions. To a hammer everything looks like a nail. Thus in medicine we improved general health not only because we need to solve many health problems and because we have learned and applied much knowledge to that end but because we actually biologically need to solve problems as a species. The repertoire once activated wants to continue activating. Thus as we make our lives better we also simultaneously retire a problem to gnaw at, frustrating our will to solve problems and our hunger for drama. Think of a rodent who needs to gnaw with his teeth or else the teeth will become too long to function. Medical malpractice indemnity excesses and helicopter parents do not come down so much to opportunistic lawyers or government regulation gone overboard although there is a lot of that, but rather because our need for drama attaches itself to whatever can fill the vacuum. No longer afflicted with childhood diseases and childhood deaths this is a repertoire hammer in need of a nail. The result can be a society which feels quiet stifling, claustrophobic  and oppressive. We feel like animals in a zoo and in truth this is what humans have become. We can not ever leave the zoo of our own making because the habitat outside of it is no longer there.  We do not become happier in the absence of problems; we only become emptier. This human zoo is the stage on which our mind repertoires are played out and played out quiet inappropriately. This creates all sorts of anxieties on to which many panics can latch on to and which advertisers are well placed to exploit. Our present era is one of great improvements although it is possible this will not last. In summary humans were designed to build utopia but they were not designed to live there. The tragic ape indeed. A comedy of creation.

In the episodic waxing and waning of hysterias something similar happens. The age of witch hunts was not an age free from desperate problems although as always some few were very comfortable. It did still see cycles of manias in communities as if something very dark was periodically activated. We see this with religious fundamentalism, Marxism, Nazism and feminism with their potential for panic to escalate to include an ever widening circle of threats. Once the initial “enemies” being the convenient problem needing resolution have been exiled, imprisoned or killed ideologies need to invent an even more vaguely defined group of “enemies”.  During the witch trials of 17th century in Germany Frederick von Spee observed that those who called most loudly for the trials were eventually entangled themselves because they did not realise that their turn would come. See my blog  post on this very courageous 17th Jesuit priest.

What does this have to do with the subject of my blog. Perhaps an understanding of the irrationality of feminism and why it looks like religious fundamentalism. It looks like fundamentalism because that is what it is. If you have not yet had the accusing finger of feminism pointed at you yet, don’t worry your turn will come.

The process of idealogical escalation of paranoia is described by Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) as per the Wiki entry at….

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It is for this reason I am glad I would not be going to heaven if it existed. Just like earthly utopias it would be a disaster.


4 thoughts on “Ladies and Gentlemen Choose Your Hysteria

  1. I can’t help feeling that the current obsession with relating everything to some imaginary ‘evolutionary’ purpose should be another one of those hysterias. We can’t just be what we are – we have to have become that way for a ‘purpose’, which being that it has helped us to continue our precarious existence for all of not-a-lot of years, in evolutionary terms. A slender enough basis for such reliance on ‘evopsych’, in my opinion. Add the lack of logic (how can the origination of any given trait be down to selection – does selecting the ripe fruit make it ripe?) and you have a perfect pseudo-scientific belief system. You even have the scary witch to frighten you from going ‘off-message’: what? you don’t believe in Darwinism? Are you some sort of religious nutter?

    All that aside, I’m sure there is something in the connection – if you believe there is something in the connection (you see how this thing works?) Personally, I suspect (no more – lack of evidence) that the various hysterias you refer to have societal origins. They contain culturally specific content and cross generations. They draw on the basic palette of human emotions, which are contentless. But who knows, maybe one day the evo-psych enthusiasts will find a useful survival strategy for snoring. It scared away the bats by jamming their sonic system, no doubt. Until then, I shall acknowledge the fact that the evolutionary component of evo-psych contributes precisely nothing to our understanding of what we are and how we should respond to it other than the belief that somehow ‘it must be so’.

    • I think the clue to the old brain energising hysterias is the raw nature of emotions exhibited. When our ancestors became human we did not lose our older areas of our brains. They are still operative. Evolution patches over the existing architecture rather then rebuilding it. Thus we have newer and older brain areas.

      There is a universality about hysterias. They vary only in the rationale and language and may be dressed up in complex narrative. Basically the witch hunts of the middle ages are the same as the hysteria around albino children in eastern Africa. It is the same fear and collectively harnessed a group identity is strengthened when another is identified is being “outsiders”. The evolutionary origin is favouring one’s own genes even if this misfires in the making of a group not connected with DNA or only loosely connected but on average on the African Savannah 200,000 years ago such a propensity served to favour one’s like genes.

      What we learn to do as influenced by society does not have the raw emotions except in so far as such surface superficial cultural differences may be “identified” as different” and worthy of attacking even if such differences are only loosely connected to DNA.

      The most extreme form of such hysteria is racism and I suggest you read the blog on “Racism, a conjecture on the origin, reasons for its persistence and advice on living with it”. Racism is universal and you will not a society which has not practised some form of it. Even multicultural activists soon develop new forms of sublimated racism such as against “cis white hetero normative”. This is the same instinct energising an outlet of some sort. Anti-racists too are observed being very hateful.

      None of this endorses racism or other hysterias. It is only to comment that if we do not fully understand the evolutionary origins of human behaviour, good and bad, then we will plunge head long over a cliff in our ignorance.

      • IF our ancestors of 200,000 years ago did attack the ‘different’ (we don’t know this), and IF this behaviour is entirely gene-related, then it would indeed have resulted in a species that routinely attacked the ‘different’. As an explanation for our own hysterias it has plausibility on its side but sadly, no evidence. This places it outside the realm of science.

        On the first question, we do have scientific evidence that earlier homo sapiens interbred with homo neanderthalis, which somewhat undermines the attacking the different theory. It is a common error to attribute to our ancestors characteristics we currently have (they were our ancestors, right?) but to emphasise the ones we don’t much care for (they were dumb, right?) and then be amazed at discovering aspects of ourselves in our ancestors.

        I do not understand the significance of your suggestion that attacking the different meant strengthening the gene pool. Anything we did would have appeared to have strengthened our gene pool since we would be the consequence of whatever we did. It is as if your are suggesting that there is a drive or instinct or purpose which intends to strengthen gene-pools, yet natural processes cannot have intention. Stuff happens: the gene pools are affected. We are the inevitable result, whatever it may be.

        None of this explains our recent (within recorded history) hysterical attacks on outsiders. Organised civilisation may as much be the cause. Without evidence we can only summise that there is something nasty about our species. It’s a wonder we’re still here.

      • I did not say that that “our behaviour is entirely gene-related” but only that biology is the underpinning platform on which cultural effects play out. They out influenced by biology. We have an instinct to attack what is different because on average (not always) and certainly in the context of the African savannah a different person is one with different DNA to ourselves.

        The “not always” is important un understanding how this plays out in society. A mammal will be protective of its young and will suckle and care for its young. This usually favours like genes. But this nurturing instinct can also cause the mammal to suckle an orphan young of anther species which is not in its genetic interest. It is cute and in need of care.

        Similarly our group preference can cause us to be defensive against other languages, religions, political ideologies or football teams. These may only be loosely related to our genes interests or not related at all. Our consciousness knows not but acts anyway.

        Yes Neanderthal genes are found in homo sapiens. I am not surprised that our protective instincts with its in group bias can come to see a Neanderthal as an “insider” in the same a female animal can suckle the young of another species.

        What is or is not “in group” is culturally influenced but the protective instinct of that “in group” or the exclusionary instinct is biological. On average it works to favour own genes. In the modern world it is less likely to correspond as neatly.

        In the macro racism favours our own genes when taken to extremes. A holocaust directly destroys the competition. Less aggressive reproductive disenfranchisement can be achieved by excluding others from mating. The US south under Jim Crow or female Australian Aborigines being monopolised by white men. This reproductively disenfranchised aboriginal males. The “stolen generation” was another example. See Germane Greer’s book “Rage”. There were “good” reasons and even “noble” reason but that old genetic competition in the older areas of our brains are at play with the cerebral cortex providing the cover story.

        What happens in war at the extreme? “Kill the men and rape the women”. Very biological. The FLDS religious sect chasing away young men to protect the mating rights of the senior polygamous males. This is exactly lion society. White swans and black swans will not tolerate each other. Not racism because these are different species rather then sub-species (as races might be thought of) but genetic competition is there in the driver’s seat of that behaviour.

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