Month: October 2020

Inescapable Terror

murray schane state of mind

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.

Death and Taxes

murray schane state of mind

When I was eleven years old I was taken to the hospital for an elective appendectomy. It was my introduction to the American healthcare system.

Last week I filed my 2019 income tax forms, paying times what Trump paid in 2017,  thus interacting yet again with our tax system.

Between these two events many decades of living have intervened. Inevitably my involvement with these systems will terminate with death.

Such thoughts give pause—or a rear-end kick—now that a global contagion rages on, climate damage is threatening to result in massive animal and plant die-out, politics appear to be leaning so far right that bizarre, paranoid conspiracy theories and science disbelief are seizing population sectors, human inequalities seem to be increasing, the Amazon rainforest, our carbon dioxide world control center, is being desecrated, international contentions and small wars rage on……it’s a disquieting time. Millions are now living in lockdown and warding off fears—about sickness and economic disaster— with televideo binge-watching and social media and digital converse. Yet they, we, are still isolated or actually alone.


“…science, too, as a narrative form”


The human brain evolved over many thousands of years primed for expansive and formidable adaptation. Creativity and the search for novelty has pushed us through barriers that are physical, social and even psychological. But we are burdened and limited by the things we cannot narrative. Being fundamentally narrative beings, animals that can not think or dream or imagine without enclosing all that in explanations or stories or theorems or even mathematical formulas that codify narratives. Science rescued us from levels of ignorance and mythologizing that would have held us back, even as we seek explanations and thrust forward leading with our craving for novelty and our inherent creativity. But science, too, as a narrative form. Even our ever-expanding knowledge of the universe is delivered as a narrative, from the first book of the Bible and farther back to the ancient Greeks and farthest back. But where is our narrative brain, our great evolutionary prize, leading us?

When I was given ether as the anesthetic for my appendectomy at age eleven, I woke in a torrent of terrifying hallucinations, like a dream that was more real than any nightmare. I was spinning in a centrifugal whorl, being pulled and stretched further and further as I spun in what seemed like endless space. As the spin increased its speed the tearing and stretching, like some medieval torture, became increasingly painful and frightening. I awoke screaming and thrashing like a wild animal chained. That experience has never left me. Probably induced by the neuropsychological effect of ether, that hallucination ensured my belief in the creative potential of the human mind as well as the narrative impulse that shapes all experience.

Which takes me back to the present. Poised what seems like a very steep precipice, America could topple into the kind of ruthlessly manipulated, re-narratized, information bounded and controlled form of governance that almost every country has, at one time or another, immersed inself in.

Which takes me back to death and taxes. Is the drive to massive disorder that seems now threatening, inevitable.? Does Rome have to fall again and again? Is a new dark age due to befall us, we who brought it on?

Give ourselves a break. Do us all some good.


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