Brain key

Bringing It Home

Ask any of your friends or family members why America is polarized these days and they’re likely to give you answers ranging from social media or cable news to politicians. Or, they may accuse the other side as being duped, ignorant, or just not listening.


The fact is they are wrong, or at least only partially right.  We’re polarized because that’s the way God made us. Humans are hardwired to organize people into “us” vs “them” and to see the world in terms of safe vs dangerous, win vs lose. This hardwiring is a survival mechanism made possible through a set of structures in our brains that process information before the rational parts of the brain have access to it. Politicians, cable news, social media, and the rest use of this mechanism to foment distrust of the other side and generate fervor and loyalty, but they couldn’t succeed without it.


This survival mechanism, which is referred by terms such as the limbic system, lizard brain, primitive brain, or reactive brain, came in very handy in the Stone Age. Imagine you were being threatened by a Sabre-toothed tiger. Would you want to take time to ask whether the beast is friendly or not, then analyze your options to choose the most effect response?  Or would you want to run as fast as your legs would let you?  Better yet, what if you your brain could divert all available blood and hormones to your legs, giving you the energy you needed to run faster than might otherwise be possible?


That last option is what the limbic system does for us.  It identifies threats to our survival before our rational brain is even aware of them, then shifts us into “fight or flight” mode, flooding our bodies with neurochemicals that throw us into a frenzy and divert all available resources from non-essential body parts to our extremities.  We would have become extinct long ago if we hadn’t been equipped with such a mechanism!


Yet, some might say our limbic system has passed its expiration date.  Having evolved in more dangerous, less complex times, it cannot distinguish physical dangers from threats to our ideas, beliefs, or identity.


That may seem like no big deal, but our limbic system is over-active these days, shifting us into fight or flight merely because we’re talking to someone whose political views run counter to our own. We’re slaves to our limbic systems, responding to simple things like the sight of a MAGA hat or pro-life sign with fear, anger, distrust, and sometimes violence.


While many of us believe we can reason our way out of political or ideological fight or flight, studies show that isn’t how the brain works.  In fight or flight, the limbic system diverts resources away from the rational part of the brain to itself, essentially turning off our ability to reason.  We shift to relying on instinct and habit, responding by replaying old thoughts rather than generating new ones.


Understanding the role the limbic system plays in creating and maintaining the divisions that are tearing our country apart is key to finding ways to address those divisions. The limbic system operates by comparing the current situation to memories of past situations. When it encounters sights, sounds, words or ideas that are new or different, or resemble past threats, it responds out of instinct or habitual behaviors. By creating new memories and developing new habitual behaviors, we can influence both what the limbic systems interprets as threat and how we respond to threats. The goal is not to keep us from reacting to actual threats. It is to allow us to show up as our most rational selves when we choose to.


At present, there are over 500 organizations working to reduce toxic polarization in America today.  Collectively referred to as bridging organizations, each, in their own way, is helping us tune up our limbic systems by creating new memories and new habitual behaviors.


Consider the following experiences offered by bridging organizations:

  • Observing courteous, intelligent debate.
  • Participating in civil, respectful political conversations.
  • Watching films or documentaries showing deep friendships between people with differing political views.
  • Working with neighbors from all walks of life to clean up our highways.

Each of these positive experiences creates new memories our limbic systems can compare against when assessing whether something we see, read, or hear is a threat. 


Consider workshops that teach active listening, communications skills, or techniques for finding common ground with people who see the world differently.  With practice, any of these new skills can become habitual behaviors.


Citizen Connect provides a calendar of events where you can start tuning up your own limbic system.  They may not describe their events as limbic-system tune-ups, but now that you understand the true cause of polarization, you’ll know that’s what they are doing. For best results, shop around until you find the types of events that you enjoy the most, because tuning up your brain is not a once-and-done activity.  You’ll need to create a lot of new memories and practice your new skills until they become habits.    

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