Psychic Numbing

Psychic Numbing

See the boy. He is dead, his face turned into the dirt of the street he grew up on. His arms are limp at his sides and there is no effort to move him. He lays there amid blood and rubble.

Twenty feet away, another broken body. And another, bent at an impossible angle. A ruined car sits nearby, just as dead. A smattering of gunfire periodically breaks the silence that hangs heavily like a coating of dust. There is only wreckage left of what used to be a living community.

The only promise for tomorrow is that the death toll will rise. Another body, ten thousand more.

But this is familiar. We’ve seen this before. It’s the stuff of daily newscasts. Yet as people around the world see more desolation and death, they can only care less.

Here’s part of why: psychic numbing. Scenes of war and chaos have existed throughout history, but only in recent decades have researchers given a name to this phenomenon.

In the decades after World War II, Robert Jay Lifton coined this term as he studied war survivors. It appeared that many who had lived through great traumas had little to no feeling about their experiences, like their well of feeling had just gone dry. It seemed they needed psychological distance in order to keep themselves mentally afloat.

Today, psychic numbing is still part of how our brains work. When disaster or crises come, detachment is a key response. It’s hard for us to conceive of suffering or despair on large scales. Our emotions can’t count that high.

Our brains focus on what’s prominent or actionable around us. When we see a child in pain, we act. When there is something we can do for someone, we try. This is often called the identifiable victim effect. But the penury or struggle of lots of other people is largely beyond comprehension. When we can avoid such unpleasant thoughts (not only that such things happen, but also that there’s little we can do), we are eager to do so.  

This is certainly true in other circumstances. People who have lived through all manner of trying times have felt numb and psychologically drained, which is innately human. When we reach an emotional threshold, we withdraw to avoid overloading and risk of permanent damage.

Yet thinking in terms of wars is helpful because thinking on a grand scale reminds us of our limitations. We realize we do not think well about large numbers. When we hear about huge problems we can little about, it seems it’s innately human to detach from it.

Take it easy on yourself next time you feel a twinge of guilt for not responding intensely to far-off events or another instance of an intractable problem. Perhaps there is something you can actually do, but remember that the world is a big place and your brain can only hold so much.

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