The real chasm in the US: Reactive Brain vs. Creative Brain

Once this election is over, how in the world will we heal the yawning chasm that has opened up between us Americans?

I’ve mused on the worrisome development of our vast polarization since the two candidates were chosen (see my blog, “Trump: Evil or…?”). Our country’s unease is palpable. Friendships have been lost; family members no longer speak. People from each side threaten to leave the country if the other candidate wins. A friend worries about civil war breaking out; Texas, once again, brings up secession.

How could we be so very far apart, with equal degrees of vitriol coming from each side? What has happened that Hillary Clinton is literally being equated with the devil, and Donald Trump with Hitler?

Our total lapse of empathy with each other is the result of occupying completely different states of consciousness. Not “better” or “worse,” though the differences are so stark as to reflect separate universes.

Trump found his way to being a presidential candidate by putting words to what it feels like to live in Reactive Brain. Reactive Brain is the physiological response that comes from perceiving a threat. It is a stress response, fueled by adrenaline and cortisol, creating a sense of urgency, that push instantaneously fight, flee, or freeze. Because it is tied to our survival as a species, Reactive Brain’s pull to jump in and  join together with like-minded others while going on the attack against the common enemy is reminiscent of what any loyal member of a pack would do. That reactivity is highly contagious, bringing out the basest of instincts to protect one’s mates by being willing to decimate those who are the threat. These responses are instinctive and very hard to resist.

We must face into the fact that there are millions of Americans who currently are living in that threat response. Perhaps the danger is from job loss, from economic uncertainty, or from role and status change. The impact of this threat to survival is reflected in this astounding statistic: the only demographic whose mortality index has actually increased over the past 15 years is that of poorly educated, white, middle-aged Americans. Researchers were so alarmed about this glaring trend that they that they equated it with the AIDS epidemic. They attributed the higher death rate in this demographic to their increases in pain, poor health, and emotional distress. These stressors ultimately appear to be leading to increases in suicide and alcohol and drug poisoning.

In other words, there is a large segment of our population that is living in (and dying from) the stress response that comes from chronically living in Reactive Brain. For them, the world poses an ongoing threat.

Trump has articulated the experience that millions of Americans are having, and it is real. It can’t be brushed aside, insulted, or eye-rolled away. A threat response is a threat response.

Clinton’s words about “stronger together” and working for change reflect her anchoring into Creative Brain. Her equanimity under pressure (often perceived as coldness) is apparently something she’s cultivated for many years. This ability hasn’t just come from withstanding incredible hostility by shutting down; she is a meditator who has practiced staying grounded and connected to a more expanded state through breath and awareness. That allows her to think more clearly and stay anchored into perceptions of the world that see others as friends, not foes; as supports, not threats.

I want to be clear: Creative Brain isn’t “better” than Reactive Brain. Reactive Brain has allowed our species to survive through the millennia, allowing us the immediate responses that get us to safety. The trio of “fight, flight, flee” worked, and ensures our safety every day. Creative Brain does, however, allow for a wider range of responses, and supports creative problem-solving and more flexible thinking. It especially allows for collaboration and connection, where Reactive Brain pushes for hierarchy and competition.

Each of us goes in and out of Reactive Brain and Creative Brain every day, though steady stress is likely to lead to an ongoing experience of reactivity. Being a Hillary supporter, then, actually reflects some level of the privilege of safety. This group finds ways to connect with and believe in a world that is basically friendly. Clearly Donald Trump does not see—or experience–the world that way, and neither do his supporters.

Trying to convince someone of either view—that the world is a dangerous or a friendly place (what Einstein described as “the most important question facing humanity”) is simply impossible. And our main approaches to interacting with the “other side”—contempt, hostility, and rancor—backfire. They simply provide more evidence of the endless onslaught of danger.

Our steps to healing as a country must include an understanding that Reactive Brain is real. The world-view of danger that Trump espouses is the result of long-term stress and trauma that must be empathized with and understood. The step out of Reactive Brain is a body experience of safety, a real, cellular knowing that one is seen and understood, that the survival issues one is facing can be dealt with. Then the passage back into the friendlier realms of Creative Brain becomes possible.

Let’s reunite by understanding that our brains all work the same way. When we know we’re safe, we can stand down. And then we can find each other again—and truly be stronger, together.

6 thoughts on “The real chasm in the US: Reactive Brain vs. Creative Brain”

  1. HI Julie, This is brilliant! Thanks for articulating such a thoughtful answer to the question everyone seems to be asking- What is happening??? I appreciate your clear and creative mind!

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