Wisdom of Sci-Fi: The Litany Against Fear

Hello, friends!

I may lose some geeky street cred by admitting this, but I don’t have the Litany Against Fear from Dune memorized.  I can get through the first two or three lines, but after that I get the words all muddled up, and then I usually just trail off into silence.  That’s a shame, because I’ve heard that the Litany really does help people cope with extreme fear and anxiety.

Before I talk about the Litany Against Fear and why it apparently does work (at least for some people), I want to acknowledge the fact that fear is not always a bad thing.  There’s a scene from Star Trek: Voyager that’s stuck with me over the years, a scene where Captain Janeway confronts an alien being who is supposed to be the living embodiment of fear.  When speaking to this being, Janeway has this to say:

I’ve known fear.  It’s a very healthy thing, most of the time.  You warn us of danger, remind us of our limits, protect us from carelessness.  I’ve learned to trust fear.

People who are or who claim to be totally fearless are, in my mind, kind of stupid.  There really are things in this world to be afraid of.  But sometimes fear gets out of hand, either inhibiting us in our daily lives or causing us to react to perceived threats in ways that are harmful, both to ourselves and to others.

This brings us to something called the “amygdala hijack.”  The term was coined in 1995 by American psychologist Daniel Goleman, and it refers to the way the amygdala (a part of the brain associated with, among other things, fear) can sometimes override our more logical brain functions.  Once the amygdala perceives a threat (real or otherwise), it can hijack control over the rest of our brains and throw us into an immediate fight/flight/freeze response.

Earlier this year, I spent some time talking to a therapist.  Some family stuff was going on, and I needed help processing it all.  My therapist and I ended up talking a lot about the amygdala hijack, and I learned that it is possible to stop an amygdala hijacking in progress or prevent it from happening in the first place.  It doesn’t take much.  On one occasion, I tried simply saying out loud, “Hey amygdala, cut it out!”  That actually worked.

There are also mindfulness exercises you can try.  Reciting a prayer or mantra may also help.  Or you could try using the Litany Against Fear.  A few people have told me that the Litany really does work, and given what I’ve learned about the amygdala hijack, I can totally see why.  First off, the Litany calls direct attention to what your amygdala is doing: mind-killing.  Taking the time to recite the rest of the Litany then gives your brain the time it needs to recover.  Several sources I’ve looked at mention that it takes about six seconds for the rational part of your brain to reassert itself after an amygdala hijacking.  The Litany is just a bit longer than six seconds.

Maybe it’s finally time I memorized the Litany Against Fear in full.

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

Check out some of these articles:

“Why Dune’s Litany Against Fear is Good Psychological Advice” from Forbes.com.
“Amygdala Hijack: When Emotion Takes Over” from Healthline.
“Six Seconds to Emotional Intelligence” from Albertus Magnus College Blog.

Evolution Pre-Programmed Your Brain… Really?

Hello, friends!

As humans, we all have brains [citation needed].  One of the coolest things about our brains is, of course, that they let us learn stuff.  But our brains can do something even cooler than that: our brains allow us to unlearn stuff, too!  That way, if we learn something that’s wrong, we’re perfectly capable of unlearning that thing and then learning a new thing that’s right (or at least less wrong).

Personally, I think this ability of ours to learn, unlearn, and relearn has been the key to our evolutionary success as a species.  If we weren’t able to learn from our mistakes, if we couldn’t modify our behavior in an ever-changing world, then we’d probably still be living in caves.  Or, even more likely, we’d be extinct.

But there seems to be this idea out there, propagated mainly by pop-science articles, that evolution has pre-programmed our brains.  There seems to be this notion that our genes pre-determine our personality traits, that our brains are hard-wired to force us to behave the way that we do.  This talk about hard-wired, pre-programmed behavior seems to be extra common as it relates to gender.  Men act like this, women act like that, because our genes say we must.

I don’t believe that.  Whether we’re talking about gender, race, class, or anything else, I don’t believe human beings come pre-programmed, and I don’t think the scientific evidence supports that notion either.  To quote from this article, entitled “Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid”:

[…] growing data on neural plasticity suggests that, with the possible exception of inborn reflexes, remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression.  Moreover, virtually all psychological capacities, including emotions and language, are modifiable by environmental experiences.

To be fair, I’m sure genetics, evolution, and so forth do have some influence over us.  I’m sure we’re all born with certain inclinations or predispositions.  But our ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn plays a far bigger role in determining who we are as people and how we behave toward each other.  The idea that we’re born pre-programmed to be like this or like that is, I think, a pop-science myth.

But, of course, I could be totally wrong about everything I just said.  If so, then I guess I have some unlearning to do.