typewriter with text hypervigilance conspiracy brain fog


Doom Loop

by Toby Esterhase

Although many conspiracy theories turn out to be true, two strange beliefs appeared in my inbox this week that struck me as outrageously comical — at first. After thinking about them, however, I realized that people who believed in ridiculous stories like these were quite serious about them.

“George, he’s Russian! He thinks the butterflies are spying on him.” — Herr Jacobi (aka Toby Esterhase, MI-6 field agent, in the TV miniseries, Smiley’s People.)

The Great Train-wrecking Conspiracy

Headline news stories about train derailments were popular in the spring of 2023. Amateur investigators found thousands of derails, such as the one shown in the image, scattered on railroad tracks across the United States. To many social media “influencers” these were evidence of an impending attack on the entire US transportation system by some threatening force — perhaps the Chinese. One such person wrote a viral social media post that read: “Police have revealed that devices like the one pictured above, designed to derail trains, have been found – and are being found – on railroad tracks all over the United States. Police warn that they could lead to train derailments and the death of passengers. The devices have been found nationwide, from the West Coast to the East.”

derail device on train track

Standard railroad company derail device.

People spread the alarm about this attack on the United States without applying any critical thinking or doing any research. It’s called hypervigilance — the opposite of normalcy bias.

Derails of this kind are required on any spur track to prevent runaway cars from fouling the main line and causing a collision with a passing train. They are put there by the railroads, not the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

Hypervigilance and Brain Fog

We might consider several reasons why people propagate outlandish stories without filtering them beforehand. Causes might be the great number of conspiracy theories that turned out to be factual, particularly those related to the adverse health effects of mRNA vaccines. Other causes might be a lack of critical thinking, or technical education, or worldly knowledge.

But psychologists point out that paranoia and hypervigilance, as a mass-sickness, most often results from societal and/or government oppression.

Supporting this idea are data on US psychotropic drug use, alcoholism, falling life expectancy, and all-time highs for suicide and drug overdose deaths. The tyranny of Communism in the old Soviet Union created a population of fearful, indolent alcoholics. The U.S. looks to be repeating this history.

A great number of psychology research papers on problems associated with fear and anxiety started to appear in the mid-1980s. A constant anxiety about what the wokeists and the government will do to a person or a person’s family results in all sorts of cognitive impairments; hypervigilance is only one of them.

Chronic anxiety produces an inability to think logically about circumstances or to interpret them correctly.

A simple bit of street theater demonstrates that perceived threats are often outright psychologically disabling. In an example shown to psychology students, a physically-powerful male with a microphone approaches random people on the street and aggressively demands they say a name of a woman, any woman, into the microphone. They simply can’t do it. They can’t think of a single woman’s name in a threatening situation. Their brains freeze up.

In a centralized dictatorship, the economy fails for more than just the laws of economics. It fails because the central planners themselves suffer from the unending threat of being “canceled” by the police state, so they rarely make decisions at all, and then poor ones when they do. Everyone in such societies suffer from a form of brain fog, usually combined with hopelessness for the future and depression.

Being effective under tyranny means keeping your wits about you. Suppose you want to dispute a school board policy at the next public meeting. You could spend 40 hours studying the policy and the history of who advocated for and against the current policy, and gather some convincing facts to support your argument.

— or —

You could spend 40 hours on social media obsessing over the latest outlandish theory about space aliens.

Which makes you more effective?

As for me, I am waiting for the planet Mars to become bright in the evening sky again. I want to start a rumor that the bright object in the sky is a Death Star from Alpha Centuri coming to obliterate Earth. Why not?

That seems to be the kind of prank that gives social media influencers the most clicks.

(Toby Esterhase is the pseudonym of a Silicon Valley technology company investor living in rural Washoe County. He holds patents in wireless cryptography and secure communications systems.)

(The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Nevada Signal.)