Psychic Numbing Might Explain Our Desensitization to Negative News
It’s fairly easy to become desensitized to the negative events going on in the world, and often it feels necessary to numb ourselves from the constant barrage of the 24-hour news cycle. We’re exposed to death and tragedy, to the point of exhaustion. And that’s exactly what happens, we become exhausted and tune out, in a process that has been referred to as psychic numbing or compassion fatigue.
Psychic numbing was coined by Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who developed the concept when speaking to victims of Hiroshima. Psychic numbing is often a product of post-traumatic stress disorder, but just about anyone can be susceptible to it. In fact, it is almost a natural human reaction out of an inability to comprehend large, abstract numbers or overwhelming data. So, what can we do to combat this apathy, or is it even possible to combat?
What is Psychic Numbing?
The seemingly interminable amount of death, starvation and suffering that is transmitted to us comes from many sources. Media is so pervasive and addictive that it is often difficult to censor all the negativity that comes with it. So instead, we have an innate tendency to block out our emotional response. When reality becomes intolerable, our minds need to escape and diminish that emotional reaction. This can also happen with positive things. Overconsumption of things like food, sex and any other enjoyable stimuli can lead to a diminished return, essentially diluting the satisfaction that you receive.
For humanitarian crises, war or terrorism, this dilution comes in the form of a lack of empathy. Our initial response to something like genocide might be to donate money, raise awareness or pressure a politician to act on our behalf. But once that number surpasses a certain threshold, whether it’s the frequency of crises or the amount of people affected, it becomes more and more difficult to comprehend and the amount of sympathy you can muster exponentially decreases.
Psychologists, like Paul Slavic, believe this to be related to our attachment to images. These images, whether physical or in our mind, become associated with emotions that we attach to them. Sounds, smells and memories are relevant to these images that become variables in developing our levels of empathy. But those images need to be accessed in order to tap into that emotional response. We need to devote attention in order to access those empathic feelings.
When it comes to large scale catastrophes, those images aren’t easily accessible, and the greater the number of victims, the less we feel like we can do to make an impact. It stems from how we conceptualize an event as a whole. Although we might see every life as being equal, the value of saving one life seems greater if there is only one life in danger, or one life within a small group. But when it’s a matter of saving 5,321 lives or 5,322 lives, the value of that one life is harder to conceive and becomes significantly diminished. Slavic calls this psychophysical numbing, our inability to appreciate losses of life as they increase.
But why do our minds think this way? It likely has to do with the feeling of inefficacy, that any contribution or effort to help, won’t have a significant effect – or at least one that is noticeable.
When we have an image to associate with suffering however, feelings of empathy tend to rise. This phenomenon has been seen in images that have gone viral that have represented the plight of refugees. Images of dead or shell-shocked children that have drawn attention in the media and come to symbolize the Syrian refugee crisis have been directly correlated with massive spikes in donations and humanitarian efforts. When we have a visual basis for somebody we can help, and the subsequent effect we have on them, our desire to help increases and feels more rewarding.
How to Avoid Desensitization to Bad News
So, what does one do to be more compassionate and generate more empathy? The first step is simply having awareness. Awareness of what is going on with the crisis at hand and awareness of our own tendencies to block out those emotions when they become overwhelming is key. If we become numb to atrocity, it perpetuates more atrocities. Another answer is to think small. It is possible to make the world better, by thinking small. Although it might seem insignificant, donating time, money and energy to a cause, with the potential to save or impact one life is meaningful and worthwhile.
Numbing oneself to negative news can even be seen as a privilege. Passivity to social and humanitarian injustices can be tantamount to compliance or acceptance. Being aware, outspoken or taking the smallest action is the least we can do to combat negative events. Collective, conscious action and the power of intention can have some profound effects on our society with the ability to enact change.
And it doesn’t have to be something like genocide or war; issues like climate change have become diluted by psychic numbing. The looming threat of climate change can be so daunting and feel like we are past the point of no return, but if we become completely numb to the subject, it will undoubtedly become worse. Identifying a lack of empathy or motivation due to psychic numbing is the first and most important step. We can’t let the powers that be inundate and overwhelm us to the point of becoming numb. Because when we become numb, we stop paying attention.
Consciousness Is A Big Problem For Science
Can Science Explain Consciousness?
Science has provided humanity with an incredible understanding of our physical world. But when it comes to the issue of the human mind, progress has been slow and littered with issues. Materialist science is attempting to prove that consciousness is merely a byproduct of the complex processes in the brain, and inseparable from the physical body. In simpler terms, your “mind” is the resulting process of neurons firing in your brain, nothing more and nothing less. Unfortunately, there is no actual neurological proof to support this idea, and for many who are deeply studying the question of the mind, these scientists are not looking in the right place, or using the right methods.
Alternative theories propose non-local consciousness: the idea that our brains are merely the physical conduit for the mind, not the source of its origin. These theories often explore fringe cases, such as near-death experiences, precognition, and psychic phenomena, in hopes that they can provide a more complete picture of the human mind. Of course, the majority of this evidence is not measurable to the extent that most mainstream, materialist scientists would accept. Responding to eye-witness accounts describing near-death experience, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said:
“Give me something that does not have to flow through your senses, because your senses are some of the worst data taking devices that exist, and modern science did not achieve maturity until we had instruments that either extended our senses or replaced them.”
Indeed, from the simplest microscope to the large hadron collider, it is impossible to imagine scientific progress without such instruments. But, if our senses are considered fallible as scientific instruments, what should we make of the mind we use to process and interpret this collected data? Human consciousness must be considered as unreliable as our senses, perhaps even more unreliable, as we know far less about the mind than we do about our sense organs.
This paradoxical reality is a serious issue for science: how can we study the human mind if the only tool we have at our disposal is the human mind itself?
In his book, Why Science Is Wrong, science podcaster Alex Tsakiris sums up the problem: “If my consciousness is more than my physical brain, then consciousness is the X-factor in every science experiment. It’s the asterisk in the footnotes that says, ‘We came as close as we could, but we had to leave out consciousness in order to make our numbers work.’”
Does Consciousness Exist Outside the Brain?
Part of this “consciousness problem” in scientific study is the “observer effect”: the theory that simply observing a situation or phenomenon necessarily changes that phenomenon. On a quantum level, physicists found that even passive observation of quantum phenomena can change the measured result, leading to the popular belief that a conscious mind can directly affect reality.
According to physicist John Wheeler, quantum mechanics implies that our observations of reality influence its unfolding. We live in a “participatory universe,” in which mind is as important as matter. Our belief in what is possible might actually create those possibilities, and it might reinforce the physical nature of our entire universe. If we do, in fact, co-create a shared consciousness, then our beliefs would necessarily influence our science.
Dan Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, has argued for decades that we can not simply look inside the brain when trying to understand the mind: “I realized if someone asked me to define the coastline but insisted, is it the water or the sand, I would have to say the coast is both sand and sea,” says Siegel. “I started thinking, maybe the mind is like the coastline. Your thoughts, feelings, memories, attention, what you experience in this subjective world is part of mind.”
Those exploring the outer frontiers of consciousness study are willing to take this idea much, much further. Ervin Laszlo, PhD is one of many thinkers who proposes the idea of a cosmic consciousness, describing it as a web that connects the entire universe. This field manifests locally in the human brain, theoretically meaning that the brain is able to connect to the consciousness of the entire universe. He calls this deep dimension of consciousness the Akashic Field, borrowing the term from ancient Hindu philosophy. In support of this theory, he presents numerous case-studies of near-death experiences, after-death communication, and recollections of past lives.
“We are beginning to see the entire universe as a holographically interlinked network of energy and information. We, and all things in the universe, are non-locally connected with each other and with all other things in ways that are unfettered by the hitherto known limitations of space and time.”
Those “known limitations of space and time” are the border walls of materialist science, and in the last century, quantum mechanics has begun to tear that wall down, one brick at a time. Quantum entanglement proves that tiny particles can communicate instantaneously in defiance of our known rules governing space and time. Many have hypothesized that if these tiny particles can remain connected outside of standard physical means, than the entire universe is inherently connected, as Laszlo and others have suggested. And while that may someday be proven true, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to the quantum implications of the mind.
Although there is extensive evidence for non-local consciousness, it is rarely embraced by mainstream scientists because it can’t be measured using currently available technology, and that makes significant progress challenging. Accepting non-locality forces the rejection of a purely materialist worldview, and that is a huge disruption for our current scientific paradigm, which dominates consensus thinking on how we understand the world. Yet, the study of consciousness is slowly forcing materialistic science to admit it may not be able to explain everything.
As Nikola Tesla famously said, “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” The study of human consciousness could be the motivating factor pushing us towards that new frontier.