Mediamatic Magazine vol 6 #1 Jules Marshall 1 Jan 1991

Panic Biology

In the days before fax, cable TV and personal computers, Marshall McLuhan noted that innumerable confusions and a profound feeling of despair invariably emerge in periods of technological and cultural transitions. As a result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and concepts, he said, we were living in an Age of Anxiety.


Panic Biology -

Today, that same technological and cultural transition is intensified dramatically. Conflict between old and new is increasing at the same rate as communications networks are decreasing our ability to escape knowing so. Confusion and despair are old hat in the new Age of Panic. An understanding of the epidemiology – the biology – of panic may shed some light on what we might expect.

Panic attacks: An intense feeling of apprehension or impending doom which comes suddenly and has associated physical sensations, such as breathlessness, palpitations, chest pain, dizziness, tingling in the hands and feet, hot and cold flushes, sweating, faintness, trembling and feeling of unreality.

Dr. David Clarke cognitive psychologist

One in twenty people in the UK experience panic attacks at some time, and there’s little reason to believe figures differ dramatically in other post-industrial societies. The suddenness and intensity of the sensations often leads the victim to believe they are in danger of some physical or mental disaster such as fainting, losing control, having a heart attack or going mad. Same attacks follow a clearly identifiable precipitating event or short period of anxious rumination, but others are quite out of the blue. A wide range of stimuli provoke attacks, both external - such as going to the supermarket - but more often by an internal thought, or visual image (extremely brief and often bizarre: seeing oneself lying in a coffin or collapsed in a public place), or a sensation. Dr. Clarke, an Oxford, UK-based researcher into panic says attacks can he
experimentally provoked by a wide
range of agents and drugs, including
an infusion of sodium lactate, 
yohimbine, drinking too much
coffee and voluntary
hyperventilation - but only in
individuals with a history of
 attacks. The extent to which people experienced the experiments as
pleasurable or not was determined by
their expectations and recall of previous experiences, suggesting the agents may not promote panic in patients unless the bodily experiences are interpreted in a particular way.

As a result of these studies, the cognitive behavioural model of panic suggests that it is not events per se but rather people’s expectations and interpretations of events which are responsible
for attacks. In anxiety, the important
interpretations relate to physical or
psychosocial danger. Indeed, in
everyday life there are many
situations which are objectively
dangerous and individuals'
perceptions are often realistic
appraisals of threat – a car driving
straight towards you, or a mugger
pulling a knife. In such situations,
the automatic and reflexive activation
of our normal anxiety programme is
appropriate. But anxiety can turn to panic due to the catastrophic misinterpretation of the bodily sensations involved in the normal anxiety responses. The misinterpretation is in believing these sensations are more dangerous than they really are.

This set of responses is inherited from our evolutionary past and was originally designed to protect us from harm in a primitive environment. The anxiety programme produces changes in autonomic (involuntary nervous system) arousal as preparation for fighting, fleeing or fainting. These include inhibition of ongoing behaviour and selectively scanning the environment for sources of danger. More specifically, information about the external and internal world reach the noradrenergic neurons in the brain stem, which in turn play an important role in the control of the autonomic nervous system. Their excitation produces a cascading effect involving nerves, neurotransmitters and hormones carrying information in electrochemical format. Even inside our bodies, the media are the message.

Our Emotional Reptile Brain

In Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner , the eponymous replicant hunter sorts out the men from the toys by asking a series of questions designed to elicit an autonomic response. He in effect relies on the fact that all humans portray involuntary physiological responses not just to reaI world events, but to images, sounds, memories or smells. We call them emotions and they are an inheritance of our reptilian brain, evolved 250 million years ago. That brain, known as the Limbic system or brain stem, perches atop, and is connected to, our spinal cord and thence to our peripheral and internal sense receptors. Sitting on top of this is the bit of brain we're most proud of, the centimetre-thick cortex responsible for our 'higher', or rational thinking. Our emotional reptile brain may be wrapped up out of sight, but as we know, it doesn't keep it’s mouth shut much of the time.

The most common time of onset of panic attacks is ones mid-to-late twenties.
Not coincidentally, researchers have found that stressful life events frequently trigger the onset of attacks, most involving threat of a future crisis. Sufferers commonly hold dysfunctional assumptions about themselves or the world, mostly revolving around issues of acceptance, competence, responsibility control and the symptoms of anxiety themselves: If my boss shouts at me I must be useless, If everyone doesn’t enjoy my dinner party, I must be boring. In other words, most panic today is psychosocial rather than physical in nature. The deadline, ones status at work, pollution in the Gulf, Jobs, relationships and the eco-political state of the earth have replaced sabre- toothed tigers as panic-inducers, leaving modern urbanites all stressed up with nowhere to go.
Therapy for these catastrophic misinterpreters involves rationalization of their fears through a mixture of collaborative empiricism (they are helped to appreciate that they do not have a heart attack when they can feel their blood pounding), education about panic, training in distraction to remove a link in the positive feedback loop of attacks and given activity schedules to reduce time pressure and other anxious concerns. Finally, they are encouraged to verbally challenge their automatic thoughts.

What the cognitive scientists don't address is the fear that we are right to panic. Many sources of anxiety are not catastrophic misinterpretations: our employment and job patterns are changing faster than
society can adapt; the world is getting more and more fucked up by pollution; economies are becoming increasingly chaotic: your colleagues do drop dead aged 45: world population is going through the roof, despite the famines.

Gaia Hypothesis

McLuhan laid the blame for this
environment of panic on the
relatively recent pattern of work
known as 'jobs'. From the 15th
century to the 20th, the alphabet
and print technology fostered and
encouraged a fragmenting process, a
process of specialism, detachment and
fragmentation of the stages of work. Authorship as we know it today - individual effort related to the books as an
economic commodity - was practically unknown before the advent of print technology. Mechanical multiples of the same text created a reading public, consisting of separate individuals walking around with separate fixed viewpoints. The rising consumer-oriented culture became concerned with labels of authenticity and protection against theft and piracy. The idea of copyright- the exclusive
right to reproduce, publish and sell the matter and form of a literary or artistic work - was born.

McLuhan saw that electronic
technology had created 'the mass'
out of 'the public'. With photocopying anyone can publish. Now
we have computer networks, desk top publishing, desk top video and cheap
recorders to play them on, the collection,
storage and dissemination of information is an
order of magnitude easier - and more personal. Broadcasting of information to the mass has been replaced by narrowcasting to and from individuals and interest groups. McLuhan’s mass has become an unlimited number of masses, overlapping virtual communities. We now choose
what we want to know, when we want
to know and from whom we wish to
hear it from (to an extent).
All media are extensions of some
human faculty- psychic or
physical. The extension of any one
sense alters the way we think and
act - the way we perceive the
world. The new technology, said
McLuhan, demanded that we abandon
the luxury of the fragmentary posture
for a more unified outlook. In fact, culture
was already responding, even as McLuhan

Technology had delivered the means of looking at the earth as a single system. In 1967, James Lovelock published his Gaia Hypothesis (that the earth is a complex entity involving the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and soil: the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment). Our relationship with the earth, disrupted by several centuries of industrial consumer culture based on the domination of nature, was starting to change.

Love lock s hypothesis was extended by philosophers like Peter Russell, who in The Awakening Earth , argues that Gaia has 18 of the 19 traits of living things as formulated in the General System Theory: the only trait not (yet) found is reproduction. Looked at this way, it is now apparent that McLuhan’s idea that electric media are an extension of our nervous system was an oversimplification. Electronic media are the extensions of our bodily media. More than 3000 operational satellites, stationed on the growing edge of our information nexus are the sense organs of our planet, receiving information about our environment. both internal (the state of Gaia) and external (the universe in which it lives).Transmitters beam it down. Bathing the planet in information signals, just as hormones provide a communication service that integrates the activities of diverse clusters of cells by swirling through our own bodies.

Thousands of miles of copper and glass enervate the body earth, carrying more precise digital information from node to node, or organ to organ, just as nerves do in our own body, shunted, transformed and amplified by vast phone exchanges – the digital synapses of the Gaian nervous system.

If the Lovelock and Russell are right that the earth is a single biological entity. Is it not conceivable that it might it self panic? Our nervous and endocrine systems work to keep our bodies in a state of homeostasis, keeping our internal temperature, levels of dissolved gases and nutrients and so on within parameters acceptable for life. This includes the triggering of panic states when life-threatening situations are perceived. If we are a part of Gaia, to what extent is our collective intelligence also a part of Gaia?

The Information Revolution

Derrick de Kerkhove of the McLuhan Institute in Toronto believes that language - the medium of information – may be seen as the software of the individual, the software of the human species or the software of the planet. Do we as a species constitute a
Gaian nervous system and a brain
which can consciously anticipate
environmental changes? Whether
we like it or not, we are already
beginning to function in this way. As Lovelock said, Our technical inventiveness and increasingly subtle communications network has vastly increased the earth’s range of perception. Through us, it is now awake and aware of itself, it has seen the reflection of its face in the eyes of astronauts and the TV cameras of orbiting satellites.

If that sounds overly New Age, consider how our own brains function as control systems: we don't really know. One hypothesis,
though, is that a behavioural response may involve all or most of the neurons in the brain, different responses being the statistical outcome of subtly different patterns of neural activity. If the statistical outcome of the world’s information network sometime in the future is that things are looking pretty desperate, then global media panic is the natural response.

A common failing of human systems is
the application of the correcting effort, the
negative feedback, //too soon or too late:// think of the drunks unsteady course towards a lamp post which 'comes out and hits him', as the alcohol slows his reactions and he is unable to take avoiding actions in time, or the learner driver swinging the steering wheel
from side to side through failure to sense in
time a drift From his intended course.

Where there is substantial delay in closing the loop of a feedback system, especially when events happen in a fairly sharply defined interval of time, the correction can turn from a negative to a positive feedback. Violent oscillation can result - terrifying when it happens at the wheel of a car – how about if/when it happens to the entire biosphere?

If we look back through history as a
collective species, particularly our relationship
with the global environment, we can discern a series of repetitions. There are rapid periods of technological development leading to what seems to be an environmental catastrophe. This is followed by a period of stability and coexistence with a new
and modified ecosystem. Stone Age fire-drive hunting led to the
destruction of the forest ecosystems,
but was followed by the
establishment of the great savannah
ecosystems and a new period of
coexistence. The Acts of
Enclosure in England, which denied access to the common land led to the emergence of the English landscape with its rich hedgerow habitats - regarded at the time as an ecological disaster.

The rapid dissemination of information about the environment helps reduce the time constant of our responses to adverse changes. Technology –especially computers, which have fused all other machines together in a semiotic web - has enormously increased our capacity to collect, compare and manipulate information. Anderla calculated that if we take the amount of information in the world available to a well-educated citizen for perusal in the year 1 AD as 1 unit (R. A. Wilson calls it a J or Jesus), it took 250 years to double and another 250 years to double again. In other words, the citizen of 1750 had four times as much information at his disposal as the citizen of 1. By 1900, it had doubled again to 8J, by 1950, when TV started to pick up steam, it had doubled again (16J); the information content of the world doubled again in the next decade and by 1967 - the beginning of the information revolution it had reached 64J. The final year studied by Anderla, 1973, a human had 128 times more information at his disposal than his counterpart in 1 AD. The most recent estimate for the rate of doubling today is once every 18 months.

The mathematician Theodore Cordon demonstrated that as information flow accelerates, the number of fractals in a system increases, i.e., the world is getting weirder and less easy to predict. Furthermore, as Lovelock himself pointed out: Just as a man who experiences sensory deprication has been shown to suffer hallucinations, it may be that (environmental) model builders who live in cities are prone to nightmares rather than realities. With our new hardware we embark on the first explorations of the rich world of information, idea space. Will this lead to another environmental disturbance? Has the pollution of idea space already begun in the haziness and increased entropy of language compared with what it used to be?

If so, how will the earth know whether its global media panic attacks are due to catastrophic misinterpretation or a realistic appraisal of the problems? How will you? Information is the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it and make our adjustments felt upon it, therefore to live effectively is to live with adequate information. There is no opting out of cyberspace.