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What Texas brouhaha over military training tells us about the brain

A multistate training exercise  by the Pentagon has sparked a tangled web of conspiracy theories, including a military invasion of Texas. Pictured: A public hearing in Bastrop, Texas, about the training exercise, called “Jade Helm 15.”
A multistate training exercise by the Pentagon has sparked a tangled web of conspiracy theories, including a military invasion of Texas. Pictured: A public hearing in Bastrop, Texas, about the training exercise, called “Jade Helm 15.”(Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP/file 2015)

Have you heard that the US military is invading Texas, imposing martial law, confiscating firearms, and imprisoning dissidents, all under the guise of a military exercise?

The March announcement by the Pentagon that it would be conducting a multistate training exercise dubbed "Jade Helm 15" sparked a tangled web of conspiracy theories, which were only strengthened after Governor Greg Abbott of Texas ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercise. (The Pentagon has denied any plans for a secret takeover.)

Americans of all stripes have always loved a good conspiracy theory. And while conservatives are in the spotlight over Jade Helm 15 at the moment, it's a bipartisan affliction. Some people still believe that George W. Bush was behind the 9-11 attacks.

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But those are the low-hanging fruit when it comes to considering the social impact of paranoia. Psychology professor David LaPorte at Indiana University of Pennsylvania worries that the world is becoming an increasingly scary place for all of our brains. And that is increasingly fertile ground for paranoia.

In his forthcoming book, "Paranoid: Exploring Suspicion from the Dubious to the Delusional," LaPorte warns there's a danger of a full-blown epidemic. (But he's not paranoid about it.)

Ideas reached LaPorte at his office in Indiana, Pa. Below is an edited excerpt:

IDEAS: Why is paranoia a problem?

LaPORTE: The Oklahoma City bombing, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Sandy Hook shootings — those were all events perpetrated by people with paranoia. It's a uniting theme behind a lot of violent events because paranoid people can be violent. In a paranoid person's brain, there's more dopamine flowing, so the world can seem unnaturally vivid and frightening. An increase in paranoia across society means an increase in the number of people on the fringe who are pushed over the edge.

IDEAS: How well do we understand paranoia?

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LaPORTE: I'm surprised that paranoia hasn't yet become a flavor-of-the-month disease in the medical community like autism. Paranoia has far greater implications for a variety of reasons, but it's tough to study. Studying depression is pretty easy because people want relief for their suffering and will cooperate with treatment. Paranoid people don't see themselves as having a problem in need of treatment. They see others as the problem. One of the main reasons why there aren't good studies on paranoia is that you can't find a lot of paranoid people who are willing to be studied.

IDEAS: And just like depression, we use the term paranoia both in the clinical sense but also in a social context. How do you describe what it is?

LaPORTE: We're really talking about a normal human function — suspiciousness — on a broad continuum. At the low end is naivete, which is also dangerous. At the high end, you have another pathology — paranoia. But in the clinically paranoid, the person is stuck on that extreme end and can't moderate their response. That's often tied to violence. There are associated symptoms like secretiveness, anxiety, stubbornness. And there are different levels. You can be overly suspicious about some things in your life, but you don't believe that the CIA put a chip in your brain.

IDEAS: In defense of the paranoid, it might have once seemed paranoid to think that the government was hoarding e-mails and tapping phones. Even the paranoid have enemies, goes the saying.

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LaPORTE: The key is reasonableness. Are the people worried about Jade Helm 15 being reasonable in their concerns? Are their fears of martial law justified? Are they open to alternate explanations? How flexible are they in the beliefs they hold when presented with contrary evidence? We all suffer from what's called confirmation bias, which means we find only evidence to support what we believe and ignore alternative evidence. Paranoid people do this to an extreme degree. And when someone paranoid comes to a decision, they hold on to it far tighter than the rest of us.

IDEAS: You warn that we're facing an epidemic of paranoia. Why?

LaPORTE: We know that changes in society can beget mental illnesses. Consider eating disorders. Changes in the culture about what was beautiful over the decades created an epidemic of eating disorders. Women didn't just wake up one day unhappy with their bodies. They subtly took notice of billboards and magazines over the years. It was incremental. Now, I can remember a world without computer viruses, shredding machines, security cameras, drones, identity theft. Those things are so ubiquitous now that we don't even notice them much. But all those things quietly tell our brains that the world we live in is not safe. That we are threatened. Our brains are taking it all in. Our culture is one where suspiciousness is rising in all individuals and subsequently pushing some people over the line into true paranoia.

IDEAS: But the world's always been dangerous — plagues, earthquakes, nuclear war. Indeed, we're far safer now in a great many ways.

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LaPORTE: Right, but let's make a distinction between fear and paranoia. Fear is an animal instinct that something might get you. Plagues are dangerous. War is something to worry about. But paranoia is the irrational sense that someone is out to get you. The rates of crime, for example, have plummeted in the past few decades. But you ask people how safe they feel today, and I imagine they don't feel as safe as they actually are. Our brains were developed when we were hunting and gathering. Our world today is so vastly different and I'm not sure our brains like it.

Alex Kingsbury can be reached at alex.kingsbury@globe.com.

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