The Frontal Cortex


It works. Dick Cheney shows how to do it:

These are events [9/11] we can never forget. And they are scenes the enemy would like to see played out in this country over and over again, on a larger and larger scale. Al Qaeda’s leadership has said they have the right to “kill four million Americans, two million of them children, and to exile twice as many and to wound and cripple thousands.” We know they are looking for ways of doing just that — by plotting in secret, by slipping into the country, and exploiting any vulnerability they can find.

Al Gore, in The Assault on Reason, explains the neural mechanisms that make fear mongering possible:

In a democracy, the common (if usually unstated) assumption is that citizens operate as rational human beings, reasoning their way through the problems presented to them as if every question could be analyzed rationally and debated fairly until there is a well-reasoned collective conclusion. But the new research demonstrates that, of course, this is not the way it works at all.

In the words of New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain, “Connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.”

This is a basic truism of brain anatomy: there are many more connections from the amygdala (the source of fear) to the frontal cortex (the approximate seat of “reason”) than from the frontal cortex to the amygdala. The end result is that fear is hard to supress. Once our amygdala is activated – and Cheney’s speech is clearly designed to make us scared – the brain must struggle to extinguish this fear, even when it is rationally aware that 1) Iraq was not involved with 9/11 and 2) the war in Iraq has been a recruiting and financial boon for Osama bin Laden. The language of fear is what politicians use when they are afraid what reason will expose.


  1. #1 Ed Yong
    May 27, 2007

    Great succint post. Similar tactics are used by environmental extremists. Steven Poole’s excellent book Unspeak, and its accompanying blog is a great read for anyone wanting to delve further into the world of fearmongering jargon.

    Personally, I believe that this is one of the reasons why proper science education is so important – not because of the facts it conveys, but because (if done right) it ought to instil young people with the all-important ability of critical analysis.

  2. #2 Maywa
    May 27, 2007

    “Similar tactics are used by environmental extremists.” Your point is taken, but I think Gore would argue that more fear about global warming—which is, after all, a very rational fear given its near certainty—and less fear about, say, your favorite contestant getting booted off of American Idolwould not be such a bad thing. His decades long inability to get this point across was precisely what drove him to write The Assault On Reason. He wants people to be fearful of, and therefore motivated to tackle, incipient climate change.

  3. #3 Martin
    May 28, 2007

    I actually wonder, whether this is still true in the long run. The amygdala – as far as I know – judges the current situation. So, you may fear during listening to the speach. But what role does the amygdala play during reconsideration?

  4. #4 Ed Yong
    May 28, 2007

    I do agree, and I was mostly referring to the anti-GM, pro-organic debate, and the misuse of words like ‘natural’ to mean somethign that is intrinsically good, and phrases like ‘Frankenstein foods’ to label GM products.

    Climate change is an interesting one when it comes to fearmongering terminology. I would argue that if anything, the lingo has gone the other way – that climate change sounds nicer and directionally ambivalent compared to ‘global warming’.

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