“The modern geography of the brain has a forbidding, antiquated feel to it – rather like a medieval map with the known world encircled by terra incognita where monsters roam.“ ~ David Bainbridge
I was friends with the son of a Hell’s Angel for several years … until he went to prison. As a way to show Tom love, his dad would beat him every day as a kid. This, in order to toughen him up, to increase his pain threshold so as to prepare him for a world that could be pretty cruel and uncaring. It worked. Tom was definitely tough, and physical pain was something he had little trouble enduring. The problem was that dad’s Hell’s Angel methods left Tom with little prefrontal, executive function brain development. Like the majority of violent offenders in prison, Tom couldn’t control his emotional impulses in the least, particularly anger.
In high school Tom went out for the football team as a defensive lineman. He lasted all of two scrimmages. When the offensive lineman successfully blocked him and knocked him off his feet during the second play, Tom got up off the ground and tackled and repeatedly punched the guy … long after the coach’s whistle had blown. Why? Because in his rage, his brain simply stopped playing football and chucked him into a full blown dissociative street brawl where a coach’s whistle doesn’t mean a thing.
A number of years later, Tom’s wife lay dying in Stanford Hospital of a very painful terminal disease. Trying to be an advocate for her, Tom asked the doctor to up her pain meds. The doctor refused, stating that there was too great a risk of addiction. “But she’s dying!” Tom told the doc. “What does addiction matter to a dying person?” When the doctor still refused to increase his wife’s pain medication, Tom went ballistic and ended up destroying a hospital nursing station. It took five security guards to subdue him with the help of several tasers. Tom’s threshold for pain was indeed quite high.
When we would talk about it, Tom made it clear that he was not afraid of pain or the First Terror, death, in the least. But that’s not the way I saw it. From my perspective, Tom was absolutely terrified of death, only he didn’t realize it. Not only was he terrified of it, but he was resigned to dying young, and he had little neural capacity to mount a defense against his terror. So he resorted to drugs and alcohol frequently as a way to numb the fear. Not to mention the painful memories of having been repeatedly beaten as a child.
What’s There to Be Afraid Of?
From working with death and grief for more than 20 years, I know that if you ask most people if they’re afraid of death, their defensive, denial structure will immediately tell you “No,” that what they’re most afraid of is the pain that seems to often be involved in the dying process (the medications currently available to address severe pain these days do a very good job of managing it, and most palliative care docs leave the administration of those meds up to the patient). Few will readily admit though, that it actually might be fear of death itself that lurks in the brain/mind’s deep recesses.
Years ago, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker outlined in great detail how that fear ends up distorted and buried in the brain’s depths. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death put forth the argument that all of the evil in the world could be traced back to mortality denial. Neuroscience offers up a bit of a different perspective than Becker proposed: much of the evil in the world stems from early neural disorganization that results in important brain structures never coming to full developmental fruition, particularly the Executive Function/Mindsight circuitry. In other words, we lack the blood flow and physical neural wiring to enable us to emotionally control ourselves, to think about our actions and their consequences.
To think deeply about the end of our lives.
Most of us lack the necessary neural mass and integration to truly be unafraid of either death or pain. So, we’re better served if we stop kidding ourselves. Most of us won’t really know if and how much we’re afraid of death until we’re actually directly dancing in its embrace, as it squeezes out our life force. And when that happens, we can rage against the dying of the light if we choose. But hopefully we can relax and take solace in the fact that all of us, in each successive moment, will manage the very best we can – just as our neurophysiology allows us to do in every other moment of our lives.