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Are Humans Biologically Programmed To Fear What They Don't Understand?


NPR's Invisibilia, the show about the invisible forces that shape our thoughts and behavior, is back with its fourth season. Today they are considering the safety of defined categories - success, failure, adult, child, reality, fantasy. When something falls between categories, it can feel uncomfortable for some people, even scary. NPR's Lulu Miller starts this story with someone who is loving life between the defined categories of male and female.

LULU MILLER, BYLINE: Allow me to introduce you to Allie n Steve Mullen...


MILLER: ...A 60-year-old film composer who has been living as gender nonconforming for the last seven years. Some days they dress as Allie, some days as Steve, some days as a mix of the two. They go by he, she or they. We're going to stick with they. And they take hormones to bring their body to a more neutral palette and say to them, the experience of living in between genders...

A. MULLEN: It's just electric.

MILLER: In the years of being out, they say they've found acceptance from almost everyone.

A. MULLEN: Cashiers, pharmacists, students, administration, every single person on the block.

MILLER: Except...

MADDIE MULLEN: I want to want to meet Allie. But...

KEELEY MULLEN: I don't know if I'm ready.

MILLER: ...Their daughters.


MILLER: You see, both of Allie n Steve's daughters say they really want to accept their dad's more female sides. Keeley, the younger daughter, is an activist who spends a lot of her time fighting for...

K. MULLEN: Equal rights for gender nonconforming and trans people.

MILLER: But today we're going to focus on the older daughter, Maddie, who's gay.

M. MULLEN: Politically and ideologically, I'm totally in support of my dad. But there's just something that pushes me from it.


MILLER: And this is where a story that I thought was about living in between genders became about something else. How can any of us accept ideas or beliefs or people that seem to instinctively make us uncomfortable, even afraid? To understand, let's jump back, way back to when Maddie was just a kid. She said that a lot about her childhood was often in flux. But her dad as a stereotypical dad...

M. MULLEN: He was just there. We would always rake the leaves with him in the fall, play a lot of sports together, build a huge sledding ramp in the front of our house.

MILLER: Until their dad got into a huge car accident. The girls were just 8 and 9, and their dad suffered a severe head injury, had problems with memory, speech.

M. MULLEN: And we went to the hospital, and he looked green. It scared the [expletive] out of me.

MILLER: Maddie found it difficult to visit her father after that.

M. MULLEN: I think it was the fear of him changing. Like, I've never been good with that. I remember I had a teacher in kindergarten who I loved. She got a haircut, and I didn't look at her and talk to her for weeks.

MILLER: And it took years for Maddie to feel comfortable with her dad again. Although over time, as her dad recovered and began driving the girls to school, making them breakfast, Maddie did start to lean on her father again. But then when Maddie was a senior in high school, her parents, who had separated a few months earlier, were both back at the house and beginning to fight.

M. MULLEN: My mom just started, like, screaming at my dad that he needed to tell us.

MILLER: Allie n Steve said that they were terrified to tell the girls. And after trying to make them guess...

M. MULLEN: He said to me and my sister, have you ever heard of cross-dressing?

MILLER: After working so hard to depend on her dad again after the accident, Maddie said that this image of her dad in a dress was particularly destabilizing.

M. MULLEN: All of a sudden, there was this element of, well, you're in some ways a stranger.

MILLER: So could there be some reason Maddie feels so instinctively afraid of inconsistency?

M. MULLEN: I don't know why that is for me.

JEROME KAGAN: All right, you're asking all the right questions.

MILLER: This is Jerome Kagan, a Harvard psychologist who years ago did this huge study on babies with his colleague Nancy Snidman. They forced 4-month-olds to look at unfamiliar objects like masks emitting strange phrases.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello, pretty baby.

MILLER: And they found that some babies are just worse at handling the unfamiliar.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Don't you go to sleep on us now.

MILLER: They kick. They scream. They try to look away. And they've now tracked those babies for decades and found that when they get older...

KAGAN: They worry a lot...

MILLER: Much more than the others.

KAGAN: ...Over low-probability events like your father will be killed in an airplane accident.

MILLER: They had higher heart rates, more intense neural reactions to surrealistic images. And the real biggie...

KAGAN: Greater amygdala activity...

MILLER: A region of the brain involved in experiencing fear.

KAGAN: ...To something they didn't expect.

MILLER: This set of reactions to the unfamiliar is what Kagan and Snidman call the long shadow of temperament. And while they take pains to point out that your baby temperament is not a good indicator of what you will become, it seems to be a pretty terrific indicator of what you will not become. The metaphor they choose in their book goes like this.

KAGAN: Condensed water vapor can, depending on local conditions, form a white, billowy cloud, a mackerel sky or a dense ground fog. But it cannot become an asteroid.


MILLER: Water vapor will never become an asteroid, and a person afraid of the unknown will never truly be at ease with it.

M. MULLEN: For me, like, the fight or flight thing goes off, like, all of the time.


MILLER: As Maddie got older, the unfamiliar continued to unsettle her, but she found herself leaning into it anyway. She went to college 700 miles away from home. After graduating, she took a job that has her traveling all over the country, encountering the unfamiliar all the time. And she found herself growing more comfortable with her dad, too, especially on the phone.

M. MULLEN: He was there for me.

MILLER: But then in recent years, Allie n Steve had finally begun to step into their gender fluidity more fully. They'd pierced their ears, started wearing mascara, taking hormones.

M. MULLEN: Back to the kindergarten teacher. Like, seeing a change just - it was like a jolt in me. And it just made me feel - yeah, like, a little bit cautious.

MILLER: And she hates that that is her reaction. She wants more than ever to just accept her dad. And yet still today, against her will...

M. MULLEN: There's just something that pushes me from it.

MILLER: But Maddie keeps trying, inching closer toward this in-between space that makes her so uncomfortable and Allie n Steve, who has found such happiness between categories, zipping themselves into a dad sweater and pretending it doesn't hurt.

A. MULLEN: For reasons having nothing to do with my gender, they need me to remain a fixed point in their life. And as long as they need me to remain that fixed point for them, I'm going to be that for them because I'm their dad.

MILLER: And is that painful, or is that some...



A. MULLEN: No. That's the love of the parent.


MILLER: Lulu Miller, NPR News.


The final episode of Invisibilia Season 4 is out tomorrow. You can find it in the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts as well as on many NPR member stations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lulu Miller is a contributing editor and co-founder of the NPR program Invisibilia.

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