Fear, Stress, and Hoarding: A Model for Affective Learning?

In The Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley describes how people who are in the middle of a disaster tend to “collect” things, such as carrying a stapler down dozens of flights of stairs in the World Trade Center on September 11th (citation).  She also talks about how flight attendants are can more effectively calm people (or at least control them) during an emergency if they yell and use profanity (citation).

These aren’t exactly counter-intuitive phenomena – they just aren’t phenomena that we typically think about.  But there is ample evidence that our capitalistic and “driven” society is leading to elevated adrenaline levels and “fight or flight” responses in social situations where neither fighting nor fleeing would be socially appropriate (find some sources on this).

From serving in the army, I definitely understand both these impulses – combat leaders have to “keep their men in line,” and the phrase “better to have and not need than to need and not have” was regularly repeated.  And at the AUSA Convention in D.C. (circa October 2003), I learned from one military contractor that America’s military features a “turtle army” – a military where soldiers are burdened with far more gear than comparable European militaries.  Showing off an armored amphibious vehicle designed to carry four soldiers, the contractor said that it would carry four European soldiers, but probably only three Americans because of all our gear.  (I’ve never again seen this small vehicle – in the years since, the DoD has adopted the Stryker and a series of vehicles termed Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) – indicating the U.S. military has opted for increasingly larger vehicles and heavier armor in response to counterinsurgency operations.)

Now, we know that PTSD is tied to traumatic experiences, which general neurological and behavioral changes which are likely related to hormonal changes in response to stress.  I would need to do more research before I’d be able to say what all the biological models are, or before I could accurately guess just how well we understand the relationship, but I think I can safely say that there are parallels between the body’s biological response (neurological/hormonal) to traumatic stress/shock and the biological response to the “typical” stress/shock of college, or parental expectation, or social rejection, or the loss of a loved one.  There would be differences of degree, of course, but it seems likely to me that the trauma theories we’ve been applying to survivors could also inform our understanding of how people generally respond to stress.

I’m thinking the kind of stress that comes with sharing intimate information within the space of a creative writing classroom.  Or the devastation that comes when an acclaimed professor tells students that their best work is “shit,” even if the words used are “this is all right, but it needs work.”  It’s not what the instructor says or even means that matters – it’s what the student hears or interprets.  And as one of the neurology studies shows, past trauma significantly affects the interpretation and recall of future events (________).

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