Numbing Down America

It’s not because we don’t care; it’s how the human brain works. And it’s not just an individual phenomenon. Psychic numbing has evolved as a manifestation in societies.  As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy, our willingness to do something, reliably decreases. The value of a single life or the impact of a single death diminishes against the backdrop of the overwhelming magnitude of the issue – individually and collectively.

One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

– Joseph Stalin.

It’s why a single life is more important than the difference between 57 and 58 lives. In fact, one study found that human compassion begins to fade when the number of people in danger increases from one person to just two. Another study found that people were less likely to help save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp if that camp had 250,000 people than if it only had 11,000 people.  It’s completely illogical; they would be saving 4,500 people either way. But a larger tragedy makes us feel more powerless and less empathetic.

Perhaps the best example of this is the 3-year-old Syrian boy who washed up dead on a Turkish beach. Even though over 5,000 refugees were killed in 2016, the image of the tiny body of Alyan Kurdi prompted governmental policy changes and raised more money and social awareness than all of the other lost lives combined. We collectively cared about this one child, but the hundreds of thousands before him didn’t move most of us to do more than shake our heads.

When it comes to unthinkable tragedy, big numbers are abstract, while one face is a real person. We are moved by “the one” but apathetic to the plight of “one of many.” Even if we are passionate about the cause, over time we unconsciously attenuate the abstractions until they become unnoticeable.

Fighting psychic numbness takes intention because it goes against our instincts.

As the research suggests, the next shooting will make us more numb, more apathetic, and less empathetic. Perhaps today, the best we can do is understand the influence of psychic numbing as we grieve for the masses. But, maybe from that understanding, we can look for “one of many” and act for that one.

Think One

You can worry about where and when the next shooting will happen or you can join 11-year-old Ruben Martinez in his #ElPasoChallenge to do 20 good deeds to commemorate each one of the lives lost during the massacre.

You could throw your hands in the air over the 13 million children who go hungry in this country, or you could volunteer for an hour in a local soup kitchen.

You could shake your head at the staggering statistic that more than half a million people will sleep outside or in an emergency shelter tonight, or you could donate those clothes you no longer wear.

Democrat. Republican. Liberal. Conservative. Christian. Jew. Atheist. White. Black. Brown. Immigrant. Addict. Transgender. Convict. Homeless. You can judge them, vilify them, protest them, or feel sorry for them. You can be numb to the daunting issues that face our country. Or, you can put your beliefs and values and convictions to work  – with intention – one day at a time, one person at a time, one impactful action at a time.

My challenge to you: Find “one of many” today and do one thing that matters. See one real face and personify what is meant by “person of worth and child of God.”  See one real face and demonstrate the empathy and compassion that each of us needs at our lowest point. See one real face as someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, son or daughter who just might need the kindness of another human being.

And then do it again tomorrow.

And do it again the next day.

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be 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. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

– Albert Einstein

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.


  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.

  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!

  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.

  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.




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