Neuroscience and Karma ► 15. Fearing and Fighting

Posted: 11.07.2015

0. Aid for Survival

Bhaya saṁjñā, instinct of fear, is one of the four primordial (unlearned) instincts[1] possessed by every living organism. Preparations for defense are essential for all animals, in a sense, for all life. Every living organism is continually in danger of destruction. Life is a precarious steady state maintained only by continual activity and preparedness to meet and counter adverse conditions. Instinct of fear is an aid for survival available to all life. In humans, all psychological distortions - cruelty, vindictiveness, hate etc. are produced by the deluding (mohanīya) karman. They are called quasi-passions (nokaṣāya).

1. Programs for Defense

Brain provides higher animals and men with special programs that alert them to threats to their security and enable them to deal with them. Readiness to meet danger is ensured partly by inborn programs and partly by others that are learned. These are the programs that give them fear and anxiety. Stimulation of certain regions in the brain of an animal produces arching of the back, bristling of the hairs, baring of the teeth and all the signs of aggression. Conversely after removal of some other regions, monkeys no longer display the appropriate reaction of fear to a sudden disturbance, and they will pick up and examine dangerous objects such as snakes. Evidence that there are similar centers in the human brain comes from the results of injuries and tumors, which may turn a mild person into an aggressive one or the reverse.

The physiological responses to clues to danger, whether inborn or learned, prepare the individual to give an appropriately strong response of fight or flight, and suitable responses are as necessary in social life as in physical conflict. The right response may vary from a fight to the death to submission to a superior in the hierarchy of business or any part of social life. In either case, the individual must be prepared.

2. Mechanism for Fight or Flight—Origin of Aggression

It has been known for a long time that secretion of adrenaline by adrenal glands prepares the body for fight or flight. Quite recently several systems of Aminergic[2] nerve-cells and fibres in the brain have also been found to be involved in aggressive and defensive actions by men and animals. We begin to see the connections between the programs of fear and anxiety that prepare us for trouble, and those of defense and attack with which we deal with it.

Anxiety, fear and aggression are necessary parts of life, vital to the continued existence of the individual and of the species. We characterize them as evil and wish they could be abolished, but they are the inevitable corollaries of the precarious and unstable nature of life. We cannot avoid meeting destructive conditions and we may need aggressive forces to protect ourselves from some of them. Certainly we can make every effort to minimize conflicts within our species. To do that, we shall need to consider what human attitudes and controls are required to regulate our reactions to each other in a growing population with limited resources. The programs for defense, if appropriately controlled, may yet be exceedingly useful. No one should deceive oneself into thinking that all groups of men are going to live contentedly without constraints. There are too many inequalities among us already and those who are deprived will seek for better conditions, which the privileged will deny them. There are certain to be conflicts. But proper and adequate development of man's innate capacity for peace and non-violence may, at least, help to limit and to contain them.

3. Criminal Aggression

There is evidence that some criminal psychopaths have a definite chromosome abnormality, with an extra Y chromosome (XYY). But the liability to be violent, no doubt, lies both in the genetic background and family upbringing. E.g. a failure of attachment when young, can make one cold, irreverent of human life, aloof, and emotionally distant. A greater inner emptiness and sadness is the basis of these persons' need to be powerful, strong and aggressive. It is always easier for them to be mad than sad.

Thus the programs that lead to excessive violence are probably a compound of hereditary brain defects such as errors of monoamine systems, and failure to achieve adequate personal and social attachments. The latter may in turn be a compound of genetic inadequacy and oppressive social conditions. We cannot deal with the genetics easily, if at all, and we are only beginning to understand the 'amines', but we can improve at least some social conditions. Obviously the causes of aggression are very complicated and it is not limited to those who are 'socially deprived or backward'.

These various pathological manifestations of anxiety, fear, and depression are obviously the result of distortion and over activity of programs that are useful to alert the organisms to possible dangers. Like all other brain programs these have a genetic background but are elicited and reinforced by environment. The pathological over action may be hereditary or due to past or present stimuli.

4. Control of Aggression

The control of aggression is very complicated. It involves many different brain regions and is influenced by many chemical substances. There are three areas in the basal parts of the brain whose effect is to increase the tendency of violence and no less than six parts that reduce it, the latter lying further forward in the brain. The Neocortex[3] has greater influence and in man it could dominate these basal zones. There is continual interplay between the tendencies to violent actions that spring from the lower centers and the restraints imposed by the learned responses of the cortex. In man, the orbital zone of the frontal cortex is an especially important inhibitor of the tendencies produced by the lower regions.

The actions of the lower parts of the brain are greatly influenced by the higher parts. Experience and learning are such dominant factors that in man the lower centers are largely controlled by cultural or individual influences. It is characteristic of humans that they can be educated. We may have innate capabilities for aggression and violence, but it does not follow that we need to use them.

5. The Chemistry of Aggression/Violence

Three Chemical transmitters, characteristic of some of these areas, have been identified and their amounts can be altered by several deliberate mental procedures. These are (1) noradrenaline (NA) and (2) dopamine (DA). Increase in the levels of a third amine (3) serotonin is found to depress aggressive behavior. A proper ratio between these amines is important in control of aggression.

The discovery that these substances are active in the brain has been made only recently, but for many years it has been known that adrenaline produced by the adrenal gland is involved in reactions of alarm and stress. In the brain, amines are 'transmitters' used by one nerve-fibre to activate another at synoptic junctions. It is very interesting that the central part of the adrenal gland (the medulla) is devoted to producing similar substances and sending them in the blood all-round the body. The 'alarm reaction' that they cause was one of the first examples of emotional processes to be studied by physiologists. Stimulation of the nerves to the adrenal gland releases adrenaline, which has the effect of preparing the body for action. The heart speeds up, digestion stops, blood is diverted from the viscera to the muscles and sugar is mobilized as fuel from the liver. It is indeed strange that this and the similar substance, noradrenaline, are at the same time at work in the intricate networks of the core brain, making the animal or man alert, attentive, and ready to respond.

Both in the brain and body, these amines produce rather general effects. These are not the programs that tell the animal or person exactly what to do, only that he should be aroused and ready.

6. Aggression (Violence) - not a Biological Necessity

As stated in the beginning, an aggressive response is ready to be used in every normal adult human by virtue of his possessing primordial unlearned instincts. But anger does not spring up spontaneously; at least in normal people, it has to be 'aroused'. It is triggered (and grows), for instance, by infringement of 'rights' to territory or possessions, frustration and attack on children etc. These responses are part of the mechanisms of 'fight' or flight' and come from the ancient core brain (including the hypothalamus) as much as from adrenal.

The question is - Do people have a biological need for the 'discharge' of aggression (like orgasm in sex)? There is some evidence which lends plausibility to the theory that they do. For instance, readiness with which people respond to calls for aggressive war, universal prevalence of sports with contents of combat and violence (e.g. bull-fight), popularity of art and theatre in war, from sagas (like Mahabharata) to horror films.

Nevertheless, it is incorrect to say that every individual feels that he has a need for aggression, though most do become angry when provoked. The tendency to defend one's rights or one's children does not mean that one has to be violent and it should not be equated with aggression.

Thus, aggression is neither a biological necessity nor it is universal. There are many historical instances of non-violent communities where violence was controlled voluntarily without any special laws or police.[4] There is no dearth of instances of non-violent response even to the most aggressive provocations in the history of mankind.

7. Militarism and Warfare

Whatever might have been the origins of warfare, it is obviously a major continuing danger to all individual human beings and to mankind. Wars continue to be as prevalent as ever and military leaders are at helm of affairs in many nations.

Can we find an explanation for the marked tendency of humans to form groups that fight each other? Is warfare the result of aggressiveness of individuals? "War" wrote Rousseau "is not a relation between man and man but between state arid state. Each state can have for enemies only other states ad not men". It is difficult to imagine that heterogeneous groups can possibly remain in perfect equilibrium without antagonism. The question, before us, is - how conflict could be made limited and contained? We have ample information to help us to control the dangerous capacities for violence. Protective and defensive mechanisms possessed by us are to be seen as having the positive survival values and not identified with aggression and attack. Surely such a view is more sensible.

The Chemistry of aggression/violence gives us a very important clue for controlling aggressive behavior in general and violence in particular. We know that serotonin is secreted within the brain, possibly by pineal body and through a proper technique of meditation, people may be trained to increase its proportion in blood circulation. The secretion of adrenalin and noradrenalin by the adrenal gland can be increased or inhibited by changes in the amount of ACTH released by pituitary under the influence of ACTH-releasing factors from hypothalamus. Both pituitary and pineal are found to be amenable to the conditions produced by meditational practices.

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