I remember a sandwich board man marching along Woodward Avenue in Detroit, his sign reading: THE END IS NEAR!” Well, now it seems like the end time might be approaching. We are nearing the point of polluting the atmosphere and all ecosystems that for many, if not all, life could end; we are on a perfervid course toward animal extinctions that could end with our own; we are struggling with a global pandemic that seems unabating; terrorism and wars persist and fuel possibly greater wars and even atomic warfare; and there is the possibility of a Trump re-election.
Our great psychological defense, no doubt sparked somewhere in our brains, is denial, the persistent refusal to face facts, to accept a non-disputable reality. Denial is usually the first reaction to news of impending disaster, including one’s own demise. As a defense denial serves to remove potentially destabilizing emotional paroxysms. It may keep a pilot focused on rescue efforts as his plane is hurtling toward earth. Denial can extend for long periods when the dreaded reality remains uncertain. We see hundreds of people massing to super-spreader events aware of COVID but denying any personal vulnerability. Denial as a large-scale defense operates by social processes that cause herding effects in groups, even nations.
Vulnerability is potentially a terrifying experience, a coordinated juncture of conscious awareness and emotional sensation. Our cognitive functions, a forebrain-centered action, can often override the emotional upheaval produced by activity in a deeper (sometimes called primitive) part of the brain, the amygdala. But a collusive interaction between these brain functions can create a sense of vulnerability, which can be seriously terrifying. Denial is a cognitive switch that can down-regulate the vulnerability function and provide a sense of surcease. Socially transmitted denial can extend the cognitive-emotional truce that will obliterate vulnerability and harden every participating individual’s experience against vulnerability.
Freedom from care is a universal desire. No one seeks to truly suffer. But no one fares well alone, isolated. We naturally, as determined by evolutionary selection, seek and join groups. We are genetically social beings. Which means we participate in groups by choice or by circumstance. A crowd suddenly triggered by fear will find that emotion spreading rapidly like fire, all brains linked suddenly as one and the crowd begins to stampede. In that melee there survives little regard for the other as the crowd rushes forward, trampling any who fall.
Denial flows through social groups, even mere families, as the maintenance of social ties supersedes the emergence of full recognition of a denied reality.
And so we have people crowding into bars and weddings and Trump rallies unmindful of the lethal potential that awaits them. Denial of the virulent infectivity of COVID-19 remains in full force. The people in that crowd could mindfully march into a fusillade of real bullets believing none could hit them.
And that is how we often face inescapable terror.