Think you’re being brainwashed? Highly likely!

By Rebecca Antsis

“Fear is the parent of cruelty.” -James Anthony Froude, Short Studies on Great Subjects.

Politicians love to use fear. “Code red,” “terror alert,” “national security threat”– sound familiar? They use these scare tactics for re-election and to pass their agendas. “Protect democracy” translates to “Elect me! We’ll go to war to ensure headaches never reach your doorstep.” “Protect Social Security” translates into “Elect me! I guarantee you will get that Uncle Sam check.” Make ‘em afraid, and any Tom, Dick or Sally will buy your ham baloney.

Now, the point of this column is not to demonize those who deploy such tactics of mental manipulation. Some of them are so good at disseminating this nonsense that they believe it themselves. Nor is it to say institutions such as Democracy or Social Security are perfectly hunky-dory. Its goal, rather, is to remind you of the options your big beautiful brain affords and that you have the power to decide for your damn selves!

So, what are these overlooked capabilities we are said to possess within our very own noggins? What makes fear-mongers of the world shake in their newly-shined zapatos? Well, first, let us back up a moment and examine this phenomena we call “fear.”

Fear is one of the most basic of human emotions. Fight or flight, right? Fear is so old, in fact, that we share the emotion with salamanders, beavers and whales. Which is why, when fear is evoked, it strikes such a powerful chord. It goes deep. It appeals to the oldest, most primitive survival-oriented portion of our brain: the reptilian brain.

According to the Triune Brain model, developed in 1970 by Dr. Paul MacLean, Chief of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institutes of Health, the reptilian complex or reptilian brain is the smallest, most ancient of the three that we possess. That is correct: Three brains equals options.

The 500 million-year-old reptilian brain regulates breathing, body temperature, movement, coordination, and balance. It houses the synapses responsible for instinctual human behaviors, such  as aggression, territoriality, ritual, and — you guessed it — fear. The fight or flight mechanism, present in all creatures, also exists within our innermost cranial hard-wiring. The part of the brain that makes you gobble a quart of Ben & Jerry’s strawberry shortcake (a personal favorite) also houses the most rudimentary form of fear animals may experience (salamanders who have a debilitating sweet tooth, however, are yet to be discovered).

Down the evolutionary chain came the mammalian/limbic brain and with it, abilities such as memory storage and increased emotional complexity. Mammals across the board, from Lassie to Free Willy (we are still not entirely sure about your friend Joe) all can get the blues because they possess a limbic system. Our brains started becoming more sapien with the arrival of our newest brain: the neocortex.

Largest and most trendy of them all, the neocortex affords us capabilities unique to our species; abilities like (but not limited to) language ability, abstract thought, and (drum roll, please) our rational, critical faculties. Best of all, this neocortex can override tendencies in the reptilian and mammalian brains with synaptic practice.

Our talent for critical thinking and rational thought is rather inconvenient for agenda pushers. Consider the parable of Pam.

Saturday in Las Vegas and Pam has lost her luggage. Pam is sad and decides she needs a lemonade — one from the fountain would be ideal. She spies a cafe. Plopping down at a table-for-two, she is conscious of being alone. Mutely, she contemplates her plight. A mammoth television set snatches up her attention. In a game of football, a handsome male actor is playfully tackling a female model with hairless underarms and a very large bosom. The model runs, then waves her hands (femininely, mind you) up and down in triumphant touchdown fashion. She is afraid of nothing. The handsome actor’s eyes flash with thinly-veiled animal desire. Pam is unaware when a deodorant logo floats onto the screen, and does not know where her luggage went; certainly she’s not thinking about her life’s purpose. But what Pam does know is that she NEEDS deodorant NOW. Pam downs her lemonade, chucks some loose change on the table and does a sprint for the nearest drugstore.

Now this type of fear-invoking text goes straight for the jugular by activating reactions based in your reptilian brain. It bypasses your rational faculties all together, aiming to disable your free-will to rationally evaluate any piece of information that comes your way. Whether it’s a deodorant commercial or a politician’s rally-to-war speech, fear-based, fear-inducing tactics, render you irrational, either by invoking strong emotional response and/or your largely involuntary ancient fight or flight response system. Do you honestly think those using this rhetoric have your safety and best interests at heart?

Consider Pam’s parable changed to something like this.

Pam is sipping her lemonade, feeling rather down and out. A deodorant commercial comes on, and Pam reaches inside her mental toolbox to switch on her critical mind capabilities. She recognizes the actor as an image she is meant to buy into as being an ideal mate. Warily, she proceeds to give her attention to the rest of the commercial. A female model with what looks to be a painfully-enhanced set of breasts is running. OK, Pam says. Somebody is trying to sell me a dream. She scans the cafe for a dose of reality. Nobody looks like anybody in the television set. Her attention returns to the task at hand of finding her luggage and enjoying her lemonade. Pam feels good that she has just escaped someone’s attempt to mentally manipulate her, realizing she was all the more vulnerable, being in an emotional state. Phewww, that was close.

Here are some messages both overt and covert to watch out for in all their various guises in the personal and political realms:

– You are alone.
– You will die alone.
– You are fat, ugly, uncool, hairy, smelly and stupid.
– You are inadequate.
– Once you purchase X, all your problems will melt away like ice cream in Nevada.
– Life sucks. Escape with X.
– You are not capable.
– The world is dangerous.
– We can protect you.
– Resources are scarce.
– People are innately evil.
– Trust no one.
– Us versus Them.
– Danger is imminent.
– Your loved ones are in danger.
– You need us.

You get the picture. When mental manipulation successfully invokes fear, your survivalist animal brain switches on, making you more apt to act from unconscious drives. Whether this means spending your hard-earned cash, or committing or endorsing violence, these rhetorical tactics are integral to corporate and war machine agendas.

Time and time again, statistical studies expose that the so-called dangerous reality portrayed by mainstream media and politicos is often an illusion — a sheep in wolf’s clothes. Advertising has become increasingly adept at psychological suggestion and manipulation, but so have our powers at recognizing them for what they are.

And the good news is — and there is always good news — if you are reading this in an un-brain-dead fashion, you are at this very moment flexing those same critical muscles you need in order to distinguish real information from any manipulative bullocks someone tries to spin at you.

So, relax a little. Even with all the nonsense and relative turmoil going on in the world, we live in one of the most safe and peaceful eras in human history. Fix yourself some lemonade and stick a little pink umbrella in it.

This article appeared in the March 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.

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