DURING the first few days of the Japanese disaster, I was disturbed at some of my own behaviour.
Like most of us, I watched unfolding events with horror and many tears. But then my focus changed. When it came time to make dinner, the focus of my obsession became the process of cooking. My emotions were frayed – however this time it was because there was no garlic. And I was angry that my daughter didn’t want pasta after I’d put the pasta on. Moments before, I’d been trembling in front of the TV watching apocalyptic scenes of devastation, and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Suddenly the only thing consuming me was garlic.
I remember a similar phenomenon years before at a beloved cousin’s funeral. She was a young mother who’d died of cancer. My pain was so acute I thought I would pass out. Then I began noticing shoes. I found myself thinking how impractical it was that someone would wear suede in the rain and mud. I always felt guilty for those thoughts, which gave me momentary respite from the grief.
It’s been the same for many of us these past weeks – living in a strange zone between two realities: fearful, sad, overcome with empathy on one hand; distracted by petty concerns on the other. Worrying equally about dying children and acid rain, and picking up the groceries.
How can we live in this dual consciousness? Or more importantly, why do we? According to neuroscientists, the ability to switch off is a normal survival mechanism. Simplistically put, our primitive brain helps us stay alive by warning us of dangerous situations that put our life at risk, says Justin Feinstein of the University of Iowa. “Once it detects danger, the amygdala [a collection of nuclei located deep within the brain] orchestrates a rapid full-body response.”
Watching visions of nuclear reactors exploding, the earth cracking open and mothers weeping engenders in us massive fear, panic and grief. But our “fight or flight” reaction can’t be sustained, and the CEO of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, steps in to calm us down, leading us away from distress and towards practical behaviour.
The shutting down of emotion and empathy can lead to brutality in our species. But without some “switching off” mechanism, it’s impossible to live. As a sufferer of depression, I’ve spent weeks in a state of hypersensitivity, the pain of every suffering creature echoing in my head, paralysing me. Switching off is important; not to the point of callous indifference. But just enough to survive.