[With stocks in a boring, stage-managed bear rally, we go well off the beaten path in this week’s commentary with a discussion of the amygdala. Let me explain. Since 2020, I’ve lost four close friends over political differences. I’d known all of them for at least 30 years and one for 65 years. All had rejected my contention, among others, that the 2020 election was fixed. However, my goal was not to convince them of this, but merely to get them to concede that those who believe it are not crazy. Alas, this apparently was asking too much of friendships, even childhood ones. Click. End of phone conversation. End of relationship. This seemed odd and even baffling, particularly since all my politically conservative friends have had similar experiences of being ghosted by childhood friends over seemingly nothing.
Even more striking is that without a single exception, it was the liberal who terminated the friendship. What’s going on here, I asked a longtime friend who is not just apolitical, but a formidable outside-the-box thinker and Mensa member. His response was startling but entirely plausible: There is a physiological basis for ghosting, he wrote, and it is tied to liberals’ deepest fears about survival as a species.
He lays out his theory below. Although the essay will take 10 minutes to read, you’ll be rewarded with a fascinating explanation of an alarming phenomenon that has touched tens of millions of us but which has not been written about much if at all. Please circulate the essay to anyone who might find it interesting, especially liberal friends who have stopped taking your calls . At the author’s request, I have not identified him. RA ]
Many of us have noticed that our liberal friends are more likely to ‘ghost’ us than the other way around. Typically, they terminate our friendships in ways that are meant to be final. Their way of doing so ranges from slipping away to kissing us off with a righteous display of indignation and disgust. Here is a theory to explain why this seemingly irrational behavior is, for them, perfectly normal.
The brain can be thought of as having three discrete centers influencing one’s psychology: the conceptual cortex, the imaginal cortex and the midbrain, where the amygdala is located. While the theory of hemisphere specialization is somewhat out of vogue, the generalizations about function still apply, in that people are obviously more one style than the other. These styles and the part of the brain that regulates them can be simplified as follows:
Conceptual cortex: Logical reasoning, mathematical, scientific, use of tools, calculation, planning. It’s on the left side (if you’re right-handed, otherwise the opposite). The word ‘reasoning’ would be a good grouping of these functions. Extreme version: uber-nerd, the kind of people you’d want to design a space craft guaranteed to get you home.
Imaginal cortex: Intuition, imagining what is not but can be, visualization, creativity and ‘higher’ emotions of caring and compassion. It’s on the ‘right’ side (if you’re right handed, otherwise the opposite). The word ‘idealism’ will be used to group these functions. Extreme version: overt mom-figure, the person you want to talk to when you need encouragement and positivity.
Midbrain: the ‘animal’ brain, housing the amygdala, the part responsible for desire or repulsion (and therefore the anchor of addictions). It’s called the ‘fight-or-flight’ sector of the brain, but that’s only true if you’re a bird; otherwise, it’s more literally the ‘kill or outrun’ center. Humans’ better ability at running and development of killing tools are why we became the dominant animal on earth. The amygdala therefore is a basic switch for the human, deciding what is desirable (that for which it wants more) and what is a threat (that which it tries to eliminate). Like the immune system, and one’s sense of taste, it rejects what is not quickly recognized as desirable — i.e., turns on or off, with no middle setting.
Repetition Strengthens Habits
Neurological examinations have determined that what one thinks about often tends to rewire the brain so that those cogitations happen more efficiently. “What fires together, wires together” is a laboratory maxim that summarizes this. One can think or imagine virtually anything, based on the brain’s existing ‘wiring.’ However, if one practices a task repeatedly, brain cells grow dendrites, the many ‘fingers’ emanating from the cell body, to perform the task more efficiently. This makes repetitive tasks and thoughts happen with more efficiency, while less-exercised thought uses the pre-existing connections.
Over time, for reasons of gender, upbringing, attitude, disposition and habit, people tend to be either more on the conceptual side or the imaginal in overall thinking. Their brains have an inherent or evolved way of working in that way, so that changes –literally, altered electrical conductivity — become less likely. As noted above, the neurons of the brain that ‘fire together’ end up ‘wiring together’, hardening one’s mindset. Because of this, people end up being mainly reason-biased or idealism-biased, and because this is reinforced physiologically, a level of entrenchment or positionality forms. Intrinsic to this hard-wiring of habits is the involvement of the amygdala, the part of the brain that either loves/desires more of something or decides to kill it or run away from it. Because of the survival instinct’s crucial role in propagating humankind, the energized amygdala will always override the cortex no matter how illogical the thought process.
One could loosely categorize ‘conservative’ thinking as more conceptual and based on reason, and ‘liberal’ thinking as more imaginative and based on higher feeling. The former is more cautious for survival’s sake, the latter more creative to advantage, for one, the development of tools to conquer animals. The two modes operating discretely could be compared to the accelerator and brake pedal of a car. Without the former the car goes nowhere (stability); but without brakes, the car crashes (death). One wants stability first, the other wants what’s ideal. Conservatives are more closely tied to logical thinking, which by nature must not exclude data lest a given solution be clumsy and inefficient or untethered from science. They dwell in a reality where contradictions are acceptable and in which we strive to improve our lives gradually rather than by heedlessly embracing some ideal as a goal. Dealing with improvements must happen at a doable pace, and the details must be worked out to give the process the best chance of success.
Liberals tend to complicate the process by adding in ideals they believe are important to the advancement of society. Anything that thwarts those ideals would need to be changed no matter what the cost or difficulty. Deciding when to stay the course or change it for something better is a thought process common to all of us as individuals. But here’s the problem: Each style of thinking is connected to the amygdala, with its primitive wants and needs. It likes something and wants more of it, or it sees something as a threat and either tries to destroy it or create distance from it. A little of both exists in everyone. Dedication to one version or the other results either in stagnation of the status quo, or more change than a system can absorb without falling apart. (See Alvin Toffler’s best-seller Future Shock for a deeper explanation.)
It therefore follows that when idealistic thinking is dominant, whatever stands in its way will be rejected at the ‘animal’ level by the amygdala. If you really want dessert, rational concerns about sugar intake and weight gain get outvoted. If at that same dinner your host rejects having dessert because she is watching her weight, your rational side might accede for reasons of politeness or because you don’t want to appear gluttonous: reason vs. desire. Extending this to more complex issues, we find there are conservative and liberal frames of mind and that, respectively, they imply avoiding actions that could cause problems, or a ‘damn-the-torpedoes’ idealism that seeks improvement at any cost. At the level of political discourse, there is constant tension between the desire to improve our lives gradually; or alternatively, rushing to achieve change at a pace that risks a crack-up (i.e., all accelerator pedal and no brakes).
Over the last decade or so, liberal idealism has found expression in a ‘new-speak’ vocabulary that is more symbolism than substance. Here’s a sample list, although it has been metastasizing too quickly to be considered complete or even current: embrace, supportive, victims, protect, vulnerable, safe space, equity, speak your truth, start a conversation, empower, systemic racism, transectional, diversity, inclusive, people of color, transformational, toxic masculinity, hate crime, Black Lives Matter, white (as a pejorative), Karen (as a class-war slur), trust the science (but don’t ask about the data). And let’s not forget the projection of fear of resistance with the blame-thrower’s favorite: anything-phobic.
These words, as far as liberals are concerned, have an elevated, totemic quality that conveys idealistic intent and a feeling of ‘betterment’. And while it’s true that betterment is intended, the words giving voice to this world-changing goal are sufficiently vague to be provocative, often deliberately. For example, although Critical Race Theory (CRT) is advanced as a way to ‘start a conversation’ about race, it is being taught in classrooms where whites have been excluded, ostensibly so that people of color can express themselves freely. The inherent racism of this rankles conservatives, but liberals ignore the head-slapping contradictions and press on anyway.
Americans would not be dodging red/blue sniper fire if our hard-wired brains were preoccupied with individual choices about whether to have dessert. Unfortunately, decisions about far more important things are increasingly playing out between whole segments of society, in ways that have solidified and widened our conflicts. Because of the perceived threat each side represents to the other, both sides have hardened their positions. This explains how the discourse has broken down as each side has dug in deeper. Scores of millions of amygdalas have reached the ‘fight’ level of conflict, so that ‘accept/reject’ thinking rather than compromise has become dominant. Remember: the amygdala’s main priority is survival. That means deciding what you’re having for dinner will always be less concerning than ensuring you’re not about to become someone else’s dinner.
So now we begin to understand why liberals’ intolerance has crept into the red zone, even as they pre-emptively and often ridiculously claim it is their political foes who are intolerant. As this pose has hardened and grown increasingly irrational, the would-be idealists have come to believe that speech unaligned with specific code words and re-definitions threatens their very survival. They’ve reacted in the extreme by seeking to imprison people for speaking their minds – most recently, former Trump advisor Steve Bannon — and by attempting to cancel ‘phobics’ who have merely expressed dislike or disapproval of some supposedly aggrieved minority.
In a society deeply dedicated to the principle of free speech, it seems shocking to political conservatives that so fundamental an aspect of self-governance is under assault. The pernicious trend may have peaked, however, with Biden’s attempt to create what came to be called the ‘Ministry of Truth’. While his administration’s Big Brother approach to vetting the facts behind the news may have stirred up liberals’ amygdalas, the idea was so widely scorned and ridiculed that its abortive launch cost them a key battle.
So why do liberals ‘ghost’ friends as though their survival depends on it? Because it does depend on it, since the need to advance their ideals operates at the level of physiological addiction. A mainstream media that works overtime to satisfy that addiction has only hardened the circuitry of the liberal brain. An ironic consequence is that their depredations — verbal, legal, political and even physical — have at last stirred up enough backlash to overwhelm the liberal project when Congressional elections are held in November. How will their fiercely enraged amygdalas cope with this likely disaster? One shudders to imagine the consequences, since even recent Supreme Court decisions have turned more than a few liberals not merely angry, but homicidal.