Today is 9/11.
Thirteen years ago today, the world changed. Terror, trauma, and PTSD became household words. The world became divided between enemies and heroes, us versus them, good guys versus bad guys. Never before in our history had life been so black and white.
At least not since the Cold War ended (us versus the evil Communism)… or since World War Two (us versus the evil Nazis and Fascists)… or World War One…(the war to end all war)… or cowboys and Indians, or Americans and Mexicans, or the British and American colonists or any other war going back into the history of humanity pitting one against the other.
The history of humanity seems riddled with cases of us versus them. With polarization.
In preparing my lecture for my introduction to psychology class for today on the biological bases for behavior, I noticed that even the terminology used for stimulating action in neurons involves polarization and repolarization. The resting potential of a neuron is polarized at about -70 millivolts. If sodium or potassium ions enter, the membrane either depolarizes, becoming more positive, with sodium ions, or hyperpolarizes, becoming more negative, with potassium ions. A large enough flow of sodium triggers a full action potential, where the neuron activates. But following activation, the neuron has to repolarize.
I found this terminology quite disturbing—that all neuronal action in the brain is inherently polarizing, even if only at the electrochemical level. If that is the case, I started wondering what hope we might have of transcending polarization. In his book on The Polarized Mind, Kirk Schneider (2013) wrote:
Polarization begins with fear, and extreme polarization begins with extreme fear. Extreme fear, depth research has revealed, associates not just with the loss of values or even loss of life; but with complete loss of orientation—in a word, groundlessness. The sense of groundlessness, in turn, leads to great defensive maneuvers to regain ground, or significance—and not just ordinary ground or significance but enormous height (glory) to defy even a hint of the former vulnerability. Civilizations, like individuals, will do all they can to avoid associations to their helplessness before the cosmos and much of what they do—generally at their own and others’ peril—is to create the illusion that they are equal to the cosmos (Becker, 1973; Hoffer, 1951). This pretension to omnipotence, evident in civilizations from ancient Egypt to imperial Rome and from Byzantium to colonial Europe, whose downfalls have been equally evident, based on the pretension of their origins. (p. 14)
The action potential response in neurons is an all-or-nothing response—you either have a response or you don’t. And the neuron either has to polarize, depolarize, and repolarize, returning to its original state of “glory,” or it doesn’t.
How often do we have to go through these cycles of polarization before we say we want something different? Before we say, we don’t want to divide the world into black and white anymore. Before we say, we don’t want to say people are either good or bad. Before we recognize that the world is so much more complex.
So, today, remember the thousands of people who lost their lives 13 years ago when the world repolarized. And remember the heroes who saved the lives of so many more that day. But also remember that even if some of our brain structures repolarize, we can choose not to. We can also remember today that all of us—including them—are human.
— Sarah Kass