A Writer’s perspective on primal instincts

August 16, 2020

Using only words on paper (or a screen, or braille), how do you generate a feeling of surprised elation? How do you make someone feel hope? It’s easy to write about someone feeling those things, but to actually reliably make a reader feel them seems more difficult, at least for me. Satisfaction, awe, comfort, the feeling of doing something for the first time – humanity is blessed with a nearly endless spectrum of ways to experience the world, and some of them are very difficult to replicate outside of simply living the events that create them.

In my experience, the easiest ones are things like fear and disgust. Our reactions to threats are pretty universal, and pretty near the surface because they generally come from a need for some immediate action. Get away from the scary thing. Wash off the gross thing. It could hurt us. It could make us sick. Pretty much everybody has had some version of those feelings, and they tend to generate strong memories.

That means they’re also very easy to use in politics. It’s why various forms of fear-mongering tend to work so well, and why there’s so much focus on what some like to call “base instincts” or “primal instincts”. Triggering emotional states that demand immediate action puts other instincts and needs on hold, and if you can maintain those feelings in a group of people, it’s far easier to get them to move in the direction that you claim will make those feelings go away. It’s a nasty tactic, because it always works, and because there are real problems in the world.

If you want a full transcript of this episode, you can find it at this link, along with a lot of other material.

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