Numbing Down America

As of this writing, we’ve lived through more mass shootings than days this year. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 255 mass shootings in 217 days. Statistics and definitions of mass shootings vary, but 2019 is on pace to see, on average, more than one mass shooting every single day. We are the greatest nation on the planet, and yet, so fervently divided about both the cause and any viable solution.

However, if you think I’m writing to espouse my views on gun control/gun rights, you’d be wrong. If you believe we’re on opposing sides, confirmation bias would probably lead you to dismiss me by now. Likewise, if you think we agree on the issue, that same pesky bias might lead you to keep reading and perhaps share. Either way, my objective is not to persuade you to agree with or understand my position on guns. Intellectual humility notwithstanding, if we are divided, as passionate as we both may be, it’s quite likely that we’re both equally as apathetic about making any kind of meaningful difference. At all.

Over the past few years, we’ve been forced to sit at the ideological buffet of crusades, convictions, and causes.  Consumed in totality, our current challenges seem overwhelming – even impossible. Gun rights. Abortion. Immigration. Religious liberty. Climate change. Terrorism. It seems as if every day there is another calamity, another blow to the values we hold dear, another unthinkable tragedy. Over time, that buffet begins to look more like a day-old sh!t sandwich served with a side of futility. The energy and passion that fuels the “be the change you want to see in the world” mantra gradually dissipates into the dim hope that “one day things won’t be like this.”

Despite the ever-widening chasm of social, moral, and political righteousness and the boom of passionate voices – from social movements and civic responsibility to peaceful protests and menacing riots – we’ve become numb to it all. We’ve become passionately apathetic.

Psychic Numbing

There is a scientific term for this phenomenon; social psychologists call it psychic numbing.

The psychological definition is the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus characterized by decreased responsiveness to, a feeling of detachment, and a reduction in the ability to acknowledge and express emotion.

All that means is that the emotional magnitude of something bad – mass shootings, natural disasters, war casualties, race riots, bigotry, lies, whatever the aversive stimuli is – decreases over time with constant exposure to the point where it becomes unnoticeable. It is an unconscious cognitive defense mechanism by which we become desensitized to remote and/or continual tragedies or injustices.

Using the timely example of gun violence, do you remember the shock, horror, and outrage you felt when you learned that 13 kids died just because they showed up at Columbine High School one day in 1999? Or the 20 kids and 6 adults killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012? What about the 58 people who died because they went to a concert in Las Vegas in 2017?

Fast forward to 2019.  There have been seven major mass shootings so far this year resulting in 57 lost lives and 78 wounded. Can you name them all? Do you feel the same level of emotional intensity? It seems like every shooting and every death would make us more horrified and more outraged.  But, each one passes in and out of the news cycle with an unnerving breeziness.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Great article Melissa. I am grateful to Dennis Pitocco for sharing it on WomenOf Facebook Weekend Blog. Psychic Numbing is happening in our country on many levels because we are becoming Emotionally Saturated in order to cope. Unfortunately, I guess at some point the choice is to become numb or become cracked. Thank you for sharing your views.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and share your thoughts, Kat. Sadly, “emotionally saturated” seems like an accurate way to describe the way many of us are feeling these days.

  2. I always told my son that we all have choices of what we contribute to the world around us. Sometimes you need to look past the bad and contribute good to neutralize the world around you. Perhaps the bad will still be there but your contribution should always strive to be positive. After all, it is the only way to flip things more to the positive again.

  3. Excellent points, Melissa. It is overwhelming to us poor mortals. We have reached a point where most of us simply grimace and say, “What can I do, I’m just one person?”. Yes, we are being numbed down and dumbed down by both our elected officials and the media.

    • You’re not alone, Ken. Little gestures can have big impact though. I invite you to find one person today who needs something you have to share… a few bucks for a cup of coffee, a few minutes of conversation, or even just a few kind words in passing. That’s my plan anyway. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Great article, Melissa. It is thought-provoking and informative. It is also written with a sense of compassion and an ask that I believe most of us can do. I love what you say here: “My challenge to you: Find “one of many” today and do one thing that matters.” I think we forget that the one thing doesn’t have to be something grand. Even small gestures go a long way toward enacting our compassion and understanding for someone and their known – or unknown – circumstance.

    I came into work this morning feeling a bit down. When I arrived in my office, I saw on my desk a white carnation adorned with a beautiful ribbon and a simple handwritten note that says: “Stay Strong.” I don’t know who left it. But one was left for each person in the surrounding work area — each one with a different sentiment. It brought tears to my eyes but in a hopeful way. I don’t know how they knew that was the sentiment I needed, but it goes to show that small acts make a big difference.

    Thank you for shedding light on this topic. I always enjoy reading your work.

    • Oh my goodness, Laura. You just brought a few tears to my eyes, too. Also with hope and gratitude. The old adage is really true: At some point in your life, you realize that all of those little things were really the big things that matter. Thank you for taking the time to read and reflect. You’ve lifted me up with your words!

    • Thanks, Melissa. Here’s to more kindness, hope, and gratitude in our daily lives – and our world. I’m glad I’m not alone in the sweating eyes today.

  5. Thank you so much for this powerful, meaningful, passionate, and important article, Melissa. Psychic numbing reminds me of how an individual person can experience dissociation during times of heinous abuse and trauma. This becomes a coping strategy-the freeze response- that keeps the person alive. To thrive healing must take place.

    Many people may not know how to process difficult emotions and heinous experiences through their hearts or nervous systems, to truly resolve their individual traumas, to regain that centering place of dynamic equanimity-inner peace and presence. There are many fabulous resources and healing modalities available.

    To thaw and heal we simply must see ourselves as valuable from the inside out, worth saving, and as you invite us—to focus on one person at a time, one love-inspired action for another human being each day. I love the Albert Einstein quote as his words remind me that we are all connected in our humanity, in our wholeness, and from our hearts.

    I appreciate your wisdom and passion for this important topic. I appreciate you, my friend.

    • Thank you so much, Laura! The Einstein quote at the end is a powerful reminder to “free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Indeed, we are connected in humanity, wholeness, and love – not hate. I’m glad this one touched you the way it did. I appreciate you, my friend.

  6. Melissa,
    This is a great article. As stated in another comment, the employment of gas lighting on individuals and the masses can make us question our perspective of reality. It’s unending circular pattern can make us exhausted, desensitized and as you so eloquently stated, numb.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to read and share your thoughts, Darrin. I think that knowing we, as individuals and as a society, have the tendency to lose compassion, empathy, and the motivation to act as these events continue to happen may be the first step.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. I’m so glad you found value!

  7. Melissa, Loved the article and your perspective. I am in agreement with what you suggest that each one of us do something that aligns to the world we say we want to experience. It boils down to each one of us taking responsibility and choosing to create the experience we say we so strongly desire without attaching it to whether or not another will follow suit. Quite simply, we could have peace across the planet if everyone woke up one morning and declared from that moment forward they would be peaceful and then went about “being peaceful.” Over simplification, perhaps, but it doesn’t make it untrue or not worth pursuing.

    Another component, to me, that appears to be more at play is the effect of gaslighting. Not that it hasn’t always been employed to one degree or another, but it does seem to have hit a new high water mark. If the “silent majority” continues to accept and thereby condone what we are seeing, hearing and therefore experiencing, we only have ourselves to blame for the condition of the current world. Blessing to you as you live in full expression of your truth.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Jim. Your point about gaslighting is so true and seems to be completely overlooked by many. This last week has been crazy and frustrating and exhausting for me to process all that has happened and the denials and justifications for the ugly hatred we’re seeing all around us.