The Boston Marathon bombings put people to this test. The attack created chaos, pain, and destruction; it destroyed lives and landscapes. It destroyed pretense. Those on the scene were immediately forced to face the jarring reality of those who had already been injured—a reality that represented both these victims’ need for help and the possibility that providing help could result in personal injury from further explosions. In this situation, people had neither the time nor the resources to override impulses or think strategically; they could only react, behaving intuitively and emotionally.
It is in these reactions that I see beauty. In the initial movements of the helpers—the first responders, the blood donators, the countless men and women who rushed in to do anything and everything they could to fix the gaping hole left by those Monday afternoon explosions—I see an extreme example of the human capacity for selflessness. I see evidence that people tend to intuitively, instinctively, and perhaps automatically reach out to others in times of need. I see that extreme situations can cause people to transcend us-vs-them thinking, uniting diverse peoples into the “us” of humankind.
In the few days since the bombings, the intervening events—continued loss of life, a night filled with sirens and shootouts, a day spent in “lockdown,” the capture of a 19-year-old, and the heartfelt displays of appreciation for law enforcement—have threatened to prematurely relegate the explosions on Boylston Street to the past. Similarly, the delayed reactions of some—actively seeking a “them” to set up in opposition to “us”—have threatened to overshadow the immediate and selfless reactions shown by those at the scene. Taken together, these actions and reactions show that people are complex, confusing, and often self-contradictory. However, they also highlight the immense capacity for human goodness present in the midst of this complexity.
They offer the hope, at least, that the good in people will always overcome the bad.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.