This is an opinion column.
Foster parent training has helped me understand more about American politics than years of experience in the halls of Congress ever could. The psychology and physiology of a traumatized child puts the interconnected web of politics, policy, and power in a whole new light. In truth, many foster children aren’t that different from modern American partisans.
Trauma and stress attend almost any situation where the state intervenes in a relationship between parent and child. As a result, foster parents train to address those factors which deeply influence both behavior and development. Thankfully, my wife and I trained with Dr. Daniel Siegel’s hand model of the brain to help us understand some complex neurological interactions.
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Look at your hand. The wrist represents the spinal cord, the palm is the brainstem (basic body functions), and the thumb is the amygdala (danger detection). Place the thumb into the palm to form the limbic system. The other four fingers fold over the thumb to represent the cerebral cortex, and the tips of those fingers are the prefrontal cortex (emotional governor).
If there’s a simpler model of brain anatomy, I certainly haven’t found it.
The limbic system is the instinctual survival part of our brain which also handles memories and emotions. The cortex is responsible for imagination, creativity, problem-solving, and our higher level thinking in general.
If a grizzly bear is chasing me through the woods, I’m quite grateful for my limbic system which triggers a rush of cortisol, a stress hormone, increasing my heart rate and giving me a burst of energy to flee. If I stopped and reasoned through my options before moving to escape, I’d become bear food.
On the other hand, I can’t effectively consider the best policies to reduce gun violence while chased by said bear, because the limbic system is in the driver’s seat. If I need to think and process, the cortex must retake control. That happens when I feel safe from the bear and calm down.
The prefrontal cortex is especially important because it allows us to evaluate a signal from the amygdala and control our emotions before they get to the point where our fight or flight response takes over. For example, it helps us keep our cool even after someone says something particularly offensive.
Our foster trainers explained that our prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until we’re almost 30 years old. As such, children have less of an ability to control their emotions. When they flip their lids, it’s often up to parents to help them calm down before their thought centers can effectively engage and address a situation.
Sounds good for parenting. What about politics?
For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why politicians I respected ran negative, fear-based ads I absolutely despised. Brain physiology explains so much.
Thinking, rational people challenge politicians. They ask all kinds of questions, discuss issues in detail, and expect politicians to demonstrate statesmanship.
Rather than rise to the challenge, many politicians create grizzly bears barreling towards us. Democrats want to take our constitutional rights. Republicans are white supremacists. Liberals want to force you to clap for drag queens performing at your church. Conservatives will commandeer your uterus. If the other party wins, your future and family are at risk.
In response, our lids flip and too often stay that way. The limbic system drives our actions. We look to our leaders to tell us what to do to address the immediate threats. We become reactionary and aggressive. As far as our brains are concerned, stress is stress. Our belief in the threats around us is every bit as relevant as reality. My brain doesn’t care whether the grizzly is actually chasing me. I’m running until I believe I’m safe.
Cable news makes for a toxic political partner. If we’re angry or afraid, we’re glued to the screen awaiting the next grizzly coming over the horizon. As long as we’re focused on a string of partisan monsters, we don’t hold our own elected officials accountable or stop watching. We become strung out, inconsistent, and unquestionably compliant.
If our political leaders and media companies were foster parents, they’d calm us down. They’d help us sort through our emotions in productive ways. They’d help us prioritize what really impacts our families and communities.
But then we might not vote for them. We might realize that so many of them are directionally loud and otherwise incompetent. We might turn off the televisions and play with our children and grandchildren in a creek somewhere. Above all, we’d operate in reality and not useful political fiction.
Our only path to a better future is understanding what’s happening to us and ending the cycle. Whether it’s cable news, social media, or even casual conversation, we’re all worse off participating in a political battle royale. When we sense anger and rage developing because of something we watch, read, or hear, we should put our lids back on. Change the subject, step back for a bit, or do something unexpectedly kind. Keep the thoughtful parts of our brains in control and realize we can’t effectively communicate when they’re not.
Better yet, train to be a foster parent. Many children need a calming adult influence, and many of us could use a little help learning to be just that.
Smith is a recovering political attorney with three boys, two dogs, and an extremely patient wife. He engages media, business, and policy through the Triptych Foundation and Triptych Media. Please direct outrage or agreement to firstname.lastname@example.org or @DCameronSmith on Twitter.