A fear expert explains how North Korea’s nuclear threats can mess with your mind

This file photo distributed by the North Korean government shows what was said to be the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in the photo. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

It does sound scary — miniaturized nuclear warheads made to fit inside ballistic missiles that could be aimed at the United States.

“Thirty minutes,” the Atlantic noted. “That’s about how long it would take a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile launched from North Korea to reach Los Angeles.”

News that North Korea is moving closer to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power is no doubt a source of anxiety for Americans. A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 75 percent of Americans view Pyongyang’s nuclear program as a critical threat to the United States, and 91 percent said that they have at least some concerns about the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month revealed that nearly three in four Americans are worried about a war.

Despite President Trump’s vow that North Korea’s continued threats against the United States would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” those fears are real.

During his stay at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club on Aug. 8, President Trump said North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if they continue making nuclear “threats.” (Reuters)

But why are we so scared?

We, as humans, were hard-wired to err on the side of caution, said Shmuel Lissek, founding director of the ANGST Laboratory at the University of Minnesota.

Evolutionarily speaking, he said, organisms that were overly cautious in the face of low-probability threats were more likely to survive and pass on their genes — and humans inherited those genes.

“So when there’s a very small probability threat that is of very high intensity, we tend to worry instead of not worry,” Lissek told The Washington Post.

The following Q&A with Lissek has been edited for length and clarity.

THE POST: Why do people fear war, especially when it is unlikely?

LISSEK: With North Korea, I actually don’t know how realistic the fears are. But the fear system evolved to alarm us of survival threats. It’s that same alarm system that activates when we’re late for a meeting or when we’re playing Pac-Man and we’re about to get gobbled by the ghost, so it may account for some of why we over-respond to minor threats. Because the system that is responding — the fear system — is the same system that evolved to warn us of survival threats.

THE POST: What is the No. 1 fear most people have? Why do we fear it?

LISSEK: Because we live in such social worlds, I’d have to say the No. 1 most common fear is socially related — fear of social evaluation. But aside from that, the fear of death is high up there.

THE POST: How exactly does the human brain process fear?

LISSEK: The visual stimulus is processed through the light that hits the retina. That is transduced into neural signals and goes to the thalamus, the sensory gateway to the brain, where incoming sensory information is processed in a quick and dirty way. That information then can go right to the amygdala, which is an almond-shaped brain structure deep in the brain that can produce the fear response.

So — you’re walking in a forest. You look down and you see a squiggly line, and you immediately jump back. Initially, you thought it might be a snake but with further assessment you see it’s just a stick and you calm down. In that example, the thalamus is processing that very early visual information and all it sees is a squiggly line; it can’t give you a higher resolution percept of the image. So at that point, you don’t know what it is but you have a reflex to jump back because it resembles a snake. That’s the quick-and-dirty route between the thalamus and the amygdala. But when you look at it more closely and it’s a stick — that’s the thalamus communicating with the visual cortex where you get a more finely grained representation of the visual stimulus. The cortex then turns off the amygdala activation.

THE POST: What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

LISSEK: Fear is defined as an event-related response — you’re afraid of something specific. Anxiety is more of a sustained aversive response.

An example would be in an experiment, if every time you see a blue square you get shocked, you learn to fear the blue square. And that’s called fear, and that’s tightly linked to the amygdala.

But you also learn to fear the experimental room where the shock occurred. And that’s called anxiety, contextual anxiety, because you basically learn to fear the experimental context where you experienced the shock.

So the fear of a North Korean attack would initially start off as fear. It’s fear of a discrete threat — the threat of North Korean nuclear threat. It could turn into anxiety if it becomes long-lived.

THE POST: Can you talk about the power that fear has over people? For instance, are people more likely to make certain decisions when they are scared — and is that a response that world leaders, militaries and even terrorists rely on?

LISSEK: Fear leads you to rely on the easy response as opposed to a more difficult response. You’re more likely to sort of fall back on quick and easy information to guide your decisions.

That’s one reason in the military, they really focus on training. What the person is supposed to do is really overlearn until it becomes sort of second-nature, so that when the person is in a fearful situation, the fear will promote them doing this overlearned behavior. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking because they’ve practiced it so many times.

Fear facilitates overlearned behaviors, or prepotent responses — responses that come easier to the person. But fear also compromises the ability to process things that are not fear-relevant.

Read more:

Why Obama may be wrong about freedom being more powerful than fear

Why North Korea threatened Guam, the tiny U.S. territory with big military power

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