Tobias Baer explores a question many may have on their mind right now.
This morning I found myself in disbelief and incredible sadness that once again, there is a war on European soil. What will it take to end it? In my psychology studies, I found a voice of authority that can give us a perspective in these dark hours.
In her monumental, raging book “The Body in Pain,” Elaine Scarry, a distinguished writer frequently cited even by leading psychologists for her impeccable research, starts off by explaining how torture works and then writes that war is torture at the societal level, applied to a whole country. She argues that war is as of now the only way to change the ideology of a people. Ideology is part of our higher-level self-image where our values, beliefs and aspirations for ourself sit. This self-image is shaped by our culture, faith, upbringing, and sometimes conscious choices we make in the course of our lives. Normally, they are a constant, at most changing and evolving at glacial speed. History is full of examples of people who have died for their beliefs – so you clearly cannot change a person’s self-image and ideology with the ease of updating your Windows theme.
Yet there is a way to suspend our high-level self-image – and this is pain. If we suffer heavy, intolerable pain, it is a signal to our body that an acute, potentially life-threatening situation has occurred. And our bodies are survival machines – when our survival is at risk, our bodies completely retool and every cell, every function in our body is retuned towards the goal of immediate survival. Usual restrains are lifted – this is why victims of traffic accidents sometimes succeed in lifting entire cars. Their muscles actually could do this any time – but normally their minds restrain them to avoid rupture of muscle tissues. Quite literally, the body in pain fighting for survival becomes unhinged.And one important aspect of this retooling of our bodies is the complete suspension of higher-level concepts of the self. The body in pain fights in the here and now; we seem to experience the world in slow motion as our senses feed us without the normal filtering imposed by our self’s priorities. After such episodes we often say that we don’t recognize ourselves – which is exactly right because we were, in fact, an unrestrained beast at least momentarily losing the shape imposed by our self-image, by our values and beliefs and their implications for our actions and behavior. The activity of our logical thinking is dramatically dialed down; our animalistic, simplistic pattern-based thinking is taking over.
This mechanism is designed for short periods – e.g., for fighting off a wild animal or an invader of a neighboring tribe. Torture, by contrast, exposes an individual to pain for long, sustained periods. At some point, the acute suspension of our higher-level self becomes chronical, even permanent. Essentially, our beliefs, our values and convictions start melting, until they become a blank sheet again, ready to be rewritten according to the ideology of the torturer. Or as Scarry puts it, our self and our world is unmade. This technique isn’t just used by authoritarian regimes – psychologists have pointed out that the boot camp of elite soldiers essentially leverages the same technique; by submitting soldiers to extreme levels of physical and psychological pain (fittingly, the training of US Marines includes “hell week”), the military can rewrite the self of its elite soldiers in order to create fighting machines executing orders without conflicting beliefs.
Key points include:
- Simplistic pattern-based thinking
- Melting convictions and beliefs
- Executing orders without conflicting beliefs
Read the full article, What Psychology Says It Takes to End a War, on LinkedIn.