Humanity in the Face of Crisis

It is hard to put into words all the emotions that describe the November 13th Paris attacks and subsequent reactions. The horror was beyond imagination. In many ways it is hard to believe that such could have been an act of humankind; which is why, in a paradoxical sense, the events also give me great hope for the spirit of humanity. I had been living in Paris for nearly three months leading up to the attacks and had grown to call Paris my new home. So much of about this city of lights enchanted me—and still does today: the slow culture of eating, the beautiful architecture and countless cultural sites, and the amalgamation of socio-economic classes and nationalities. Not surprisingly, I feel quite at home in a place where chocolate is a food group unto itself. Coffee with pain au chocolat for breakfast is a normal yet extraordinary way to start the day. Things changed not only for Paris but also for the world on November 13. Within instants, confusion turned into fear, and fear turned into rage. But there was another powerfully strong emotional reaction: love. Social media helped string together friends, family, and loved ones in words reassuring their safety. My inbox was flooded with messages. I am one of the fortunate who was out of harm’s reach. That day, I happened to be home on a return visit to California celebrating my Chinese grandfather’s 99th birthday. Seeing him again and being back with family put me at a loss of words and instead filled me with laughter—the kind that makes you want to cry—to see him and distant family again. The events in Paris only intensified our emotions. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of grief, compassion, and deep gratitude for life all at once. Now back in Paris, I am appreciating the simple pleasures of life with an air of melancholy. The morning ritual of coffee has a different note of sweetness. The autumn air feels an edge sharper. When people ask: “How are you?” it seems they more genuinely mean it. Trying to place what seemed different, I turned to neuroscience for the answer. What parts of the brain are activated when we are confronted with traumatic events? Why do some people react with love and compassion; and others, with fear and rage? Disasters are times when people have intense, often irrational feelings. These times can bring out the best and the worst in people. So I did a quick search on neuroscience behind emotions (get ready): The amygdala, located in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex region of the brain, is known to control emotional reactions, decision-making, and memory.[1] It sends off an ‘alarm system’ when we experience threats, including perceived threats, of harm. On the flip side, when we feel extremely socially connected, this taps into the very same part in the brain.[2] Pretty cool, right? Now, I do not claim to be a neuroscientist but there seems to be a link between our ability to cope with these traumatic events and the strength of our social networks. Additionally, those neurophysiological processes will play out in our physical health and interpersonal relationships, like how nicely or aggressively we act toward one another.[3] To put things more simply: there’s feedback between our behavior on the outside and our feelings on the inside. None of this comes as a surprise and yet we sometimes forget about the basic nature of the human spirit. We can re-wire our brains to help cope with trauma. Social support may be the path to resilience. Steps so simple as telling someone “thank you” or giving a cheerful “bonjour!” may not only brighten their day but also yours.[4] In times like this I hope that we may turn to forget past resentments to embrace instead the beauty of humanity. We can overtake the fear with love. Then, if that triggers a positive neural emotional response, fostering connectivity over fear and anxiety, we can light back up this city with compassion.   References [1] Good old Wikipedia. [2] Eisenberger NI, & Cole SW (2012). Social neuroscience and health: neurophysiological mechanisms linking social ties with physical health. Nature neuroscience, 15 (5), 669-74 PMID: 22504347 [3] Swencionis JK and Fiske ST. (2014) How social neuroscience can inform theories of social comparison. Neuropsychologia 56: 140-146. [4] Zak, Paul. “The Science of Generosity.” 22 November 2009.

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