My palms are already sweating. | Source

Many of us (myself included) may be feeling in these times of crisis that we have retreated from our usual bolder selves, and become, to a degree, less confident. After all, how can someone be taking bold steps when so much is on the line? The usual confidence that accompanies job changes, undertaking new projects, asking out a crush, speaking your mind, can now seem silly, frivolous, or too costly given the circumstances.

Though, is this the right way to think about it? Could there be any arguments for the idea that these are the times in which we should be having the most confidence? For all we know, this could nearly be the end of organized human civilization. There is a global pandemic, creeping authoritarianism from the hegemonic ruler of the Western empire, genocidal neglect worldwide in the wake of a killer virus, an ever impending climate crisis, civil unrest in Lebanon, typical authoritarianism from the main competitor for hegemonic rule from the East, among other things. If it were foretold that these were our last months of life, would we not be more bold and systematically tackle our bucket lists?

There are interesting results from the cognitive sciences that can lend wisdom in these times. Our neurological makeup can give us clues to why we become so frozen during crisis. And subsequent studies of political psychology and cognitive science can lend us further insight into the same.

Neuroscience on Crisis

In our brains, three important areas control our responses to situations typical of times of crisis: the amygdala, hypothalamus, and anterior cingulate cortex.

The amygdala is the classic fear-response center, and is responsible a host of phenomena from the “freezing” effect we experience when we see something threatening (like a snake) to the activation of hormonal regulators in our body. In times of crisis, we are apt to hear a lot of distressing news, experience financial shocks, lose our jobs, hear about the illness or injury of loved ones, among other things. These are prime events for amygdala activation, as we experience the initial shock and our bodies automatically freeze. One of the more difficult aspects of a crisis that is societal, not simply attack by a predator, is that we cannot just jump out of the way of a global recession. We evolved to handle these life-or-death situations by vanquishing the challenge somehow — by fighting or fleeing — so our evolved pathways are ill-equipped for the income shock that you can’t just run away from.

These processes can be seriously exhausting…

In turn, our amygdala activates our hypothalamus, which regulates a lot of hormones in our body. Importantly for crisis situations, the amygdala asks the hypothalamus to release stress hormones: cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) specifically. These hormones circulate through our body and prime us to fight or flee; dilating pupils, rerouting blood flow, activating our muscles, and generally readying us for the fight of our lives. Unfortunately, again this system was evolved for physical confrontations that would not last very long. Chronic stress, caused by repeated less severe activation of the hypothalamus, is a socially-caused phenomenon that leads to a lot of issues. Cognitively, it can leave us fatigued, deprive us of rest, and entirely without motivation.

Finally, the anterior cingulate cortex (from here on, the ACC) is the part of our brain responsible for conflict resolution, and is working in overdrive in the presence of shifting conditions and uncertainty. The ACC is responsible for the phenomenon of “cognitive dissonance,” which many of us know as something that can entirely arrest our normal cognitive function. When we think we have learned the way that the way that the world works, but then get some stimulus that we couldn’t predict, our ACC works in overdrive to try to resolve the conflict. Often, that ends up with a process called “rationalization” where our brains come up with some incredibly clever excuse to maintain our worldview and incorporate what we couldn’t predict. Cognitive dissonance can be just as arresting as an amygdala fear response, but in a way that halts our thinking rather than our physical body.

In total, these three parts of the brain are probably working harder than ever in crisis conditions; as shocking events come our way day after day, and a constant stream of new information shapes and reshapes our model of the world and what we’re supposed to be doing. These processes can be seriously exhausting, and are usually mitigated through periods of calm, reflection, and deep thinking. When you don’t get those periods because of constant crisis, your brain may well end up spending so many of its resources mitigating crisis phenomena that it has no time for bold, creative, and confident action. If your model of the world doesn’t include acting boldly in times of crisis before crisis hits, it may be incredibly hard to learn to do so while still being plugged into the stream of distressing news.

Political Psychology on Crisis

From the social science side, there is a growing body of important work attempting to understand our situated reactions to events which trigger fear and uncertainty. Cognitive scientists and psychologists alike have been attempting to understand the effect of these conditions politically since at least the mid 20th century. After all, the way that people had dealt with fear and uncertainty during the 1910’s and 1940’s became pivotal moments in the story of human civilization, as the world grappled with rises in authoritarianism and fascism that left humanity scarred for a generation.

Cumulatively, markers of fear and uncertainty have been correlated with what researchers have termed “conservatism.” Conservatism can be described as generally relating to an attitude of not wanting social change, and of rationalizing the inequalities that exist in society. This makes intuitive sense: the more fearful and uncertain you are about the world, the easier it is to simply cling to what you know, and view any change as potentially creating even more danger than already exists. Your ACC is likely kicking in during these times and coming up with grand excuses to rationalize inequalities because the energy required to resolve cognitive dissonance generated by inequality may be too much to spend.

Perhaps one of the more paradoxical conclusions from these examinations is that in times of crisis, it is often action that pulls us out of wells of fear and uncertainty.

In times like these, society as a whole may be expected to trend away from confident, bold thinking associated with social change. In fact, looking at historical times of world crisis, it becomes evident that the same leaders who end up seizing authority or perpetuating fascist regimes are those who capitalize on fear and uncertainty. It’s certainly ironic that a crisis and its emotional fallout can lead to more crisis if people aren’t careful to manage their fear and uncertainty. Conservatism can be a dangerous mindset to start to slip into, and most all of us are vulnerable to its encroachment. Instead of being bold in crisis times, we may fall back to what is safe, predictable — the way things were — instead of holding steadfast in the belief of a better world and confidently moving forward.

No Better Time for Confidence?

Perhaps one of the more paradoxical conclusions from these examinations is that in times of crisis, it is often action that pulls us out of wells of fear and uncertainty. If you are being attacked by a predator, hemming and hawing about whether or not you can find the internal strength to run away will most certainly get you eaten. In situations of chronic stress, the best remedies are intentional meditation, exercise, and social connection — three things that cannot be done without effort. In political crises which lead to conservatism, history shows us that the only path that led to conditions devoid of right-wing manipulations was actively rebuilding society and addressing underlying social causes to move toward peace.

It’s strange that these times of crisis may demand the confidence from us while our brains and bodies are running on empty and endless stress day-in and day-out. In light of this lose-lose situation, we may actually have to take the difficult steps of intentionally slowing down other parts of life to allow enough time to recover the energy necessary to act. We may have to reach out to others more than we think we should, because social connection is even more difficult in the present crisis, and we may need more of it than ever before. It might be necessary to treat ourselves and others better than we did before the crisis hit, because building individual and collective energy to keep pushing forward is no longer baked into society — in fact, society now acts very much against those interests by nature of its being so chaotic.

The rest is up to us, and it’s our choice to make: do we give into the exhausting fear and uncertainty in the world, and retreat; or do we recognize the extra importance of the times, ask for some help, take better care of ourselves, and cultivate the energy necessary to remain bold and confident amidst the chaos?

PhD student in Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Tufts University, organizer with Sunrise Movement and MA Peace Action. Philosophy nerd.

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