There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned economic recession to bring out thefear in me. Fear of poverty, fear of crime, fear of aging, fear of cancer, fear of people, fear of death. Fear, fear, fear. For the most part fear seems to have two central aspects: it’s always fear of something seemingly destined to happen in the apocalyptic near or distant future. (Hey, poo happens!). And it’s always a product of the thoughts that either seem to spontaneously emerge or that are triggered by something in my current proximate environment, something that highjacks my limbic system and literally disengages the Executive Function part of my brain (Highjacking happens, too!).

Take last week for example. We came home to our neighbor informing us that while we were gone a car with four strange guys in it pulled into our driveway. When the neighbor walked over to see what they wanted the driver told him: “We just want to take a look around.” The neighbor told them to leave or he would call Officer Bob. They promptly left. What I noticed is that in the wake of hearing this story, I suddenly began locking the front and back door before I went to bed each night. Until I caught myself; and then I stopped. I refused to let the thoughts and images in my head, conditioned by hearing the story of four strange visitors, coerce me into making this fear-based decision. The town averages less than 10 burglaries a year, and clearly the neighbors around here are looking out for us.

To counteract the above fearful thoughts I often use a mantra that I’ve mentioned previously in this column: “In this moment, everything is all right.” That seems to put my medial prefrontal cortex in charge and works to calm down the amygdala. It also serves as a useful reminder that I can’t really trust my brain and the thoughts it generates, given the 104 known inherent biases that live inside it, not to mention the 15 forms of distorted thinkingthat I regularly engage in.

But kids get trained early and often in the art of fearful thinking and making fear-based decisions through multiple experiences just like my example above. Any kids living in our house would have known that one day we didn’t lock our doors and the next day we did, even with nothing being said about it. Hopefully they would have seen, and I would have explained – as well as modeled – the process by which I refused to let fear dictate my behavior (If I lived in Manhattan, however, more locks on the door would probably be the environmentally appropriate response. Manhattan has more than 10 burglaries a year).

Big-Picturing the Future

Mostly I think, fearful thinking has a chance to take root because parents are so consumed with the daily realities of home and family life, that they have difficulty in seeing the bigger picture. Take this bit of information I present from time to time in my graduate course, Opening the Gifts of Death and Grief:

Average Human Lifespan by Era

Neolithic: 20

Classical Greece/Rome: 28

Pre-Columbian North America: 30

Early Modern Britain: 40

Early 20th Century: 45

Current world average: 67.2 (2010 estimate)

World Average in 2050:  ____?

When I ask people to fill in the blank for average lifespan in the year 2050, I get a wide range of responses. The Apocaholics assess that one disaster or another – for example, the recent synthetic creation of life running wild (a bacterium) – will set human lifespan back to the 20 year Neolithic average. The Singularity enthusiasts on the other hand, embodied by folks like Ray Kurzweil, assess that 2050 will see us continuing along an accelerating, upward trajectory. Developments in biotech, pharmacology, information technology and the network decoding of Heat Shock Proteins will all work together to increase human lifespan to somewhere between 150 and 200 years.

Over-focused in the Slough of Despond

Dr. Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley claims that Apocaholics like me are over-focused on life’s risks and we underestimate our capacity for innovative responses to those risks. Ridley is a best-selling zoologist, and the author of The Rational Optimist. He claims that new centers of innovation are emerging from pockets all around the world – something like synthetic life creation is but one example of a good thing going on constantly. Along with many, many other things that most of us have little awareness about. Ridley’s prediction for the remainder of this 21st century:

“Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”

Not much for me or the world’s children to fear in a prediction like that. Now if only we could convince my emotional, limbic brain.