The brain is hard wired to respond in predictable ways to important environmental stimuli. This was certainly an advantage to our ancestors living off the land, but it can lead to some awkward situations in our modern lives. The large letters plastered over the explicit magazine section that we’ve all seen at airports – SEX SELLS – ring true to us in an embarrassing way. Yes, when it comes to sex our rational thought system has been hijacked and our instincts rule.
This week’s election victory of the anti-immigrant Lega party in Italy provides us with further embarrassment. Again, someone is hacking into our instinctive responses – this time our distrust of outsiders: “immigrants steal” – is the message, and our instinctive systems light up again and we have to face the painful truth that we are by nature distrustful of outsiders. We are fundamentally racist. So what does neurobiology have to say about this? Is there a brain logic to these responses? Can science save us? One clue comes from the recent election in France where support for the anti-immigrant Front National party was strongest in regions with the least immigrants. Maybe it is just the unknown that we fear.
The other day I gave an interview for a magazine that had run a poll asking people whether they would generally be positive or negative to news of the discovery of extra-terrestrial life. The majority of respondents said they would be positive – what did I think about this response; would I have expected it, the journalist wanted to know? It seemed a rather simple-minded, yes/no query, but, unexpectedly, the question elicited a cascade of thoughts that helped me make sense of several ideas running through my head.
The idea of extra-terrestrial life is fundamentally terrifying. What is more threatening to us than a living entity that we do not understand and that may follow different rules of life and death? Extra-terrestrial life is the ultimate unknown, the Ur-threat. If you found it in your backyard would you pick it up, or first poke it with a stick from a distance? If it suddenly started moving wouldn’t that startle you or even make you shriek? Of course, seeing where I was going with my response, the interviewer quickly added that they were thinking about microscopic extra-terrestrial life – a new unicellular organism found in a pool of ammonia somewhere out there by an unmanned probe. That does sound better.
Big moving alien vs. unicellular life on Mars: what does this say about our fear of the unknown? We know that there is a dedicated system in the brain’s hypothalamus, its ancient instinctive core, that elicits escape to predators: basically anything large, approaching, and non-human. If it’s small or not moving it’s much less likely to be a threat and the rational system might kick in. If it is a member of our own species the predator system shuts down and we use another threat response system – intriguingly, this second system also controls sex and defensive aggression and is activated strongly during competition for mates. I’ve always wondered about which system is used when you are startled by a person wearing a mask – maybe that is why Halloween is so exciting, because covering the face deletes a critical species-specific cue and permits the predator system to be activated? And then there are insects and spiders and snakes whose strange articulated movements elicit particular terror. We don’t know how these are processed, but they might be detected already at the level of the early visual system – clearly no time for rational thought there.
Luckily, as an American I’ve been brainwashed to embrace novelty. We are taught that the world is always improving and new things are fundamentally better. In the US we ridiculed Japanese cars in the 1960s, but ten years later when it turned out they were superior, we had no problem rushing to buy them. In Europe, on the other hand, they still have trouble buying Japanese cars after all these years, and homegrown brands remain the safe pick. Apparently, over two-thirds of Americans have eaten sushi, but most Italians have never tried it. So, maybe there is hope that our fear of the unknown can be overridden and our instinctive urges modified. Well, for one, context is important. When you see others safely approaching a threat, you are much more likely to do so too. Other cues help too: discovering that the newly adopted daughter of your neighbors is from Africa has the tendency to elicit seemingly reassuring responses of “She’s so adorable!” while seeing an African man trying to open the door of the house across the street might elicit extra scrutiny. Habituation works too. Residents of Berkeley, California, home of the all-embracing flower power revolution, are famous for not batting an eyelid when they see unusual things. In one case a boy who had shown up to school each day for over a month without pants was finally asked into the principal’s office to inquire whether he might not consider a different approach to campaign for the cause he was promoting.
It is important to mention that the systems in the brain that favor avoidance are counterbalanced by another system that promotes approach. This system is more poorly understood, but it is powerfully activated during hunting, chasing, and foraging for food and controls the propensity to explore novel environments, presumably to maximized the chances of discovering new resources. Perhaps natural variations in this system underlie the urge to emigrate? America was built by immigrants seeking to escape social constraints and find new opportunities. Novelty is a powerful stimulus both for those who avoid it and who seek it.
And then there are those who declare love for the unknown for other reasons. A recurring theme in films with extra-terrestrials is the hope of salvation. Only the fearless hero sees that hidden behind the threat of the unknown is the possibility of rescue from our worst faults and fears (see Arrival for a peculiarly Canadian version of this genre). Religions are based on this stuff. We are continually searching for someone who can provide us with a cause-and-effect explanation for the threats and suffering around us and reassure us that life is not only about struggling to survive. Our brain, however, is wired for it.