What Are You Afraid Of?

In the context of psychology, a behavioral script is a set of behaviors you associate with partaking in mundane activities like brushing your teeth. It provides a framework to which to refer when exploring and interacting with the physical world. Acting out a behavioral script is so automatic, and so effortless, that you probably can’t remember ever writing it.

Think about how you might grocery shop. This script is written in such a way that you start by driving to your local supermarket and reserving a parking space. Next, you push a cart around and browse items aisle by aisle. (You also shop for the perishable foods last because you don’t want them to spoil or decay upon arriving home) You then check out at the cash register and exchange a fair amount of small talk with the cashier as he or she scans your items. Finally, you exit the store, load up the groceries in your trunk, and take off. Any deviations from the script, such as the supermarket discontinuing a promotional sale, oblige you to modify it—perhaps by shopping at a different store for a better deal.

A behavioral script is a variation of a schema, a mechanism for reducing the complexity of an object or concept to a single unit that your mind can readily process. Acquainting yourself with the concept of a horse, you understand that this animal is complete with four feet, a tail, and a muzzle. You might even associate it with cowboys and saddles and the Wild West. But what about a horse that barely resembles the image past experience has conditioned your mind into picturing? A contortion similar to John Carpenter’s The Thing monster (1986)? This prospect—that our schemas are subject to revision and thus inaccurate representations of the objects and concepts with which they are associated—is partly why I harbor an irrational fear of psychedelic drugs. Then again, when is fear ever rational?


An image you might see while under the influence of LSD. (Source: https://reflectionsonemptiness.com/2017/02/24/our-hallucinating-mind/)

Potent synthetic substances like LSD are no doubt useful for treating mood disorders and migraines. But they also yield enormous potential to loosen one’s grip on reality. According to the DSM V, Hallucination Persisting Perception Disorder is a perceptual anomaly, whereby the mind “flashes back” to the period in which it was tripping on a psychedelic and re-experiences the disturbing sensations—and long after the effects of the drug have worn off. One woman reported queer after-images and the perception of movement when none had occurred.

To paraphrase my abnormal psychology professor, who previously worked as a clinical psychologist for 25 years, there are some people who should not trip under any circumstances. For a mind that is ill-equipped to respond well to chemical compounds that we know little to nothing about, one trip that goes awry is all it takes to catalyze a crisis of existential proportions. (Even regular users of LSD are never guaranteed a pleasant trip, especially when tripping around people whom they don’t trust.) Simply put, if you’re ill-equipped to view fantastic, interlocking fractal patterns or robot-ninja-transvestite-pirate aliens from the 9th dimension, then psychedelic drugs are not for you. Still, we can learn a lot about the nature of fear and why it manifests from case studies of one-time LSD users being driven to the hospital due to transient psychosis.

Fear is analogous to getting lost in a forest in the middle of the night, with only the light of your smartphone to guide your path. Breathing heavily, you hear ominous noises in the distance but have no idea of what they could be. (It doesn’t help that you can barely see three feet in front you, nor can you find your way back to the campsite.) You’re tired, you’re hungry, and most of all, you’re afraid. But in this scenario, what’s most fear-inducing is not the ominous voices in the distance you cannot discern, or the blackened forest you cannot navigate. Rather, it’s that there is any number of possible outcomes to straying far from your path and failing to reconvene at the campsite.

The main takeaway? We don’t fear that which is unknown. We fear that which is unpredictable.

Like the LSD user who cannot predict the next disturbing sensation that his mind will conjure up during a trip that’s gone south, you cannot predict when you will get struck by a drunk driver. Or when a madman will open fire on innocent passersby—you haven’t written a script for either of these scenarios yet. The fear response, which includes heavy breathing, a rapid heartbeat, and increased adrenaline, is therefore evoked not from the anticipation of chaos, but from the sudden onset of chaos that came with no warning.

You still need to be able to live your life, writing as many scripts for as many scenarios as possible. That way, when something chaotic does happen, you’ll have an escape plan.

Categories: Ideas

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