Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

The New Sensitivity

Originally posted on February 13, 2009

Evolution requires periodic shifts in what we are sensitive to and what we need to learn to ignore. In the past, we had to ignore a variety of physical discomforts or psychological traumas because we simply didn’t know yet how to avoid them! Now that we do have many more ways of ensuring basic safety, we could liberate our minds to turn towards other concerns.

I came to this idea in contemplating the impact of a number of developments in the history of medicine, about which I’m giving a series of lectures at my local senior adult lifelong learning program (i.e., Senior University Georgetown). (You can read these lectures on my website.)  It occurred to me that with the advent of anesthesia, immunizations, nutritional supplements, and an expanded capacity to maintain cleanliness in food and water supplies as well as of the body and in the home–among other developments–people are not having to deal with so many deaths of children and other relatives, so many bodily infirmities, and so much attendant fear, grief, anger, and guilt.

Indeed, perhaps what we call PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder—was fairly common a century ago, because there were more unexpected illnesses, deaths, losses, and other feelings evoked by the lack of that medical technology (and civil technology that supports sanitation—i.e., proper disposal of feces) than in the past. (I’ve recently been impressed with a recently published book by Rose George titled “The Big Necessity,” that deals with toilets, sanitation, and the fact that many parts of the world lack this infrastructure component. )

The neuro-physiology here is worth knowing: When people are emotionally aroused, the emotional circuits of the brain, the “limbic system,” is activated; and this arousal in turn activates habitual “fight-flight” responses but inhibits thinking about things, reflecting on things, the inflow of subtle input from the neo-cortex. This is adaptive in times of danger! On the other hand, if you’re in a context of safety, you want to be able to relax your mind so that you can be free to imagine, feel with greater sensitivity, be open and flowing.  In other words, this creative potential cannot manifest much in a world where the mind must be coping with pain and discomfort.

In the olden days, insensitivity to physical discomfort and a measure of emotional armoring was needed to be a warrior or even a family member of a warrior. Life was tough and you also had to be tough to cope!  In the modern world, there’s a new challenge: We need to be free to create, imagine, and develop better social sensitivities so that we can not only compete better in the global economy, but also so that we can work towards building a more civilized world.

Our world as it is still lacks much in the way of civilization. Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a young reporter what he thought of Western Civilization and he replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” His wry response pointedly punctured the hypocritical arrogance of the self-styled most advanced civilized country in the world (i.e., England) and noted that in its actual foreign policy (and the way it treated its lower classes) the capitalistic quasi-aristocratic Euro-American culture of the early 20th century was yet far from fully actualized in the category of “civilization.” We have so much more to do to develop our peace-making skills, to compensate for our war-making capacity.

The problem is that culture and psychology often lag behind technological advance in many spheres. At present, we still over-value the warrior mentality, not only in the valuing of military personnel and endeavor, but also in the non-military equivalents of battle–i.e., the competitive (and especially body-contact) sports, the attitude of aggressiveness (in economics as well as sports)–in contrast to the under-valuing of less win-lose-type activities, cooperative games, and the like. The former requires that military-training-like insensitivity to fear and physical injury, a gross arousal of the nervous system, and the enjoyment of sheer triumph; the latter requires a different set of goals, a sensitivity to subtleties that are repressed in states of high emotion, and also a sensitivity or care for inclusion of others in the activity.

This might even be recognized to be a kind of paradigm shift, on a more emotional level, a level that feeds the cognitive and cultural. (On my website are some other papers about recent paradigm shifts.)  In summary, let’s step back and look at how our world is changing! What are the key psychological operations that are to be developed, and which old programs or patterns can we begin to let go of?

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