Moe interviews Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.
Rick Hanson: The Mystery of Fear
I’d like to start Rick Hanson with just kind of getting current. What’s been keeping your attention nowadays?
Good news and bad news. What I mean by that is that on the one hand I have been very struck by the power of fear. In the world altogether, I think the last 10 years in many ways have been a big pitch in, to use that phrase from the 60s about the power of fear.
Certainly, in America in the last 10 years, we have been all living in one long seminar, a very experiential seminar about the way in which threat, actual and imagined, can really grab attention and drive the agenda over and over again. How that links more broadly which is the work I’ve been doing lately to the ways in which we evolved to be quite anxious and very reactive to any semblance of threat.
To bottom line it, basically, there are two mistakes you can make in life. One is where you think that there is a tiger in the bushes about to pounce but there really is no tiger. The other mistake is you think the coast is clear but there really is a tiger there about to get you. Mother Nature wants us to make the first mistake a thousand times over to avoid making the second mistake even once.
The problem is that the paper tiger “paranoia” which results makes us routinely overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities and underestimate resources for dealing with threats and also fulfilling opportunities. You see these at all levels. You see it individually. You see it in couples, families, organizations. Companies do this routinely. Many companies are threat fixated rather than opportunity fixated. Definitely, you see at the national and international level.
On the one hand, the bad news side is that we are very vulnerable to fear. I put a lot of attention recently on what to do about that because I’m, as you know, a methods guy, a practical clinician-teacher kind of guy. I consume research voraciously but I don’t produce any basically. I thought a lot about how to not be so driven by fear— how to not live life under a condition of threat level orange, you know, at a personal level and also more globally.
Additionally, now the good news, I’ve been thinking a lot about how our natural resting state in terms of the evolution of the brain is characterized in terms of these three fundamental motivational systems that evolves to avoid threats and harm, approach rewards and opportunities and attach to us — bonding, love, fellowship, the ability it takes to raise a child and so forth. How those three systems have a resting state that’s calm contented and caring. Calm in terms of avoiding, contentment in terms of approaching, and caring in terms of attaching.
But, we also evolved hair-trigger mechanisms that drive us from that home base, that resting state, drive us into a reactive mode of fight or flight reactivity. So to sum up the good news is that our home base is wonderful.
The bad news is that we evolved hair trigger mechanisms that are great for short term crisis management that allows you for quality of life and allows you for long term health and well being. That gives us a challenge.
The good news is that deep down, we got tons and tons of resources. The bad news is we’ve got to deal with these challenges that are embedded in the caveman brain which is now armed with nuclear weapons in the 21st century.