How border walls trick the human brain and psyche

Geopolitical walls cause people to form mental walls, triggering a cascade of emotional reactions.
The US-Mexico border wall in Tijuana and San Diego
The US-Mexico border wall currently spans 600-plus miles, including a section of Tijuana and San Diego. Sherry V. Smith/Deposit Photos

Excerpt from Wall Disease: The Psychological Toll of Living Up Against a Border © Jessica Wapner, 2020. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.

The link between emotions and cognitive maps likely has roots in survival. The appearance of a predator at a certain spot must be remembered in order to avoid that spot in the future, explains Gabrielle Girardeau of France’s National Institute for Health and Medical Research. A jolt of fear may accompany the next crossing. On the flip side, it helps to have a good emotional connection to a place that is safe or bountiful. “Very simply,” says Girardeau, “you have to remember what bad things and good things happened, where to avoid them, and where to look for them.”

That seems straightforward enough for a prey animal trying to live through the night in the savanna. But the link between the cognitive map and the emotions becomes potentially more fraught when it’s taking place in humans. Girardeau sees a possible connection to post-traumatic stress disorder, which is typically linked to discrete events. For someone like Dato Vanishvili, the trauma of the fence may then be reinforced every time he sees it. “It’s almost like classical conditioning, like Pavlov’s dog,” says Moser. “You see something that evokes strong emotions, and each time you see it, that emotion comes up.”

The border fence has been nothing but traumatic for Dato Vanishvili. Of the eighty Georgian families that lived near him, only he and his grandson remain. The threat of harm pervades their days. “Ossetians told my grandson that if he tried to cross the border, they will catch him, take him to Russia and throw him in jail,” Vanishvili told Arab News in 2018. Yet on the other side of the fence from his homeland, he is already a prisoner. He cannot visit his daughters. He cannot walk his fields as he’s done for so many years, because they are now on the other side of the fence. He says that guards are watching him, and the Russian government will seize his home if he crosses into Georgia. “I don’t have food, bread, I don’t have anything,” he told CNN in 2017, from behind the tangle of barbed wire that now filters his view of his surroundings. “What should I do, kill myself?” The concertina wire marking the edge of his homeland triggers Vanishvili’s border cells to fire every time he sees it, and in turn, that firing may trigger the despair associated with that place.

Sometimes the emotional effect may be subtler. Claus-Christian Carbon, a psychologist at the University of Bamberg, in Germany, had repeatedly observed drivers following the same routes they drove when the Berlin Wall still stood, even though it now meant traveling longer than necessary. The phenomenon made him wonder about how the wall still shaped people’s everyday thinking. In the early 2000s, he and a colleague, Helmut Leder, turned their attention to cognitive maps. Do feelings that aren’t born from traumatic events still shape our view of the physical world? If so, would people’s views of the Berlin Wall still reside in their mental maps?

Wall Disease by Jessica Wapner book cover
Wall Disease by Jessica Wapner. The Experiment

There was reason to think so. Research in the 1960s found an inverse relationship between emotional involvement with a city and the estimate of how far away it was. The more feelings a person had about a city, the closer that person believed it to be. The greater the emotional involvement, the fewer the kilometers. Many years later, researchers at Texas State University asked students about their attitudes toward Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Participants who had positive feelings about people of other races, nationalities, and ethnicities estimated cities in Mexico and Canada as being closer than those who held negative or neutral feelings.

Carbon and Leder wanted to know whether the same pattern held true in the relationship between Germans and places in their own country. They asked eighty-three people, some of whom had been raised in the former East Germany and some in the former West Germany, to estimate the distance between cities situated in these areas, and also asked about their attitude toward reunification. By majority, those who held a negative view of reunification tended to estimate cities that used to be on the opposite sides of the wall as farther apart than they actually were. The same overestimating did not happen for cities that had been on the same side of the wall. And people with a positive attitude about reunification did not overestimate the distances. “There still exists a mental gap between East and West—even in young people—fifteen years after the German reunification,” Carbon and Leder wrote in their 2005 paper. They named the phenomenon the “mental wall.”

Carbon revisited the data a few years later because he wanted to know how the participants were gauging distance. Were they estimating the distance between cities “as the crow flies,” or were they thinking about how long a drive it was on the Autobahn? The results of this additional study found it to be the latter; participants were picturing the drive from place to place. That detail was important, because it meant they were using their cognitive maps, mental images based on their own experience. The finding, says Carbon, shows just how much our emotional life shapes our view of the world.

Our maps of the world are skewed by many emotions and thought patterns. Researchers from China found that people estimate cities that share a dialect to be closer than cities that do not. We tend to associate north with up and up with good—and south with down and bad; the north-facing world map we are accustomed to elicits a bias that the northern parts of the world are somehow better than the southern parts. That bias vanishes when the map is presented “upside down”—that is, with the Southern Hemisphere at the top, the Pacific Ocean at the center, and the Atlantic Ocean split in two. At the same time, studies have found that people think traveling north takes longer than traveling south. The fact that our sense of geography is colored by our biases is evidence of some connection between the cognitive map cells and the emotional regions of the brain.

In another experiment, Carbon asked 220 volunteers at the University of Vienna about their attitude toward the war between the US and Iraq, which was still ongoing at the time of the study, and their attitude toward US citizens. Then he asked the participants to estimate the distances between six cities in Europe, six in the US, and Baghdad, Iraq. The results were more complex than earlier studies but reinforce the notion that we bias our cognitive maps with our emotions. Participants who disliked Americans estimated cities across the ocean as farther away when they also felt negatively toward the war. But participants who liked Americans also overestimated distances to cities across the Atlantic when they felt favorably toward the war. Carbon reasoned that people who identify with the US—they liked Americans and the war—would see European cities as farther away because of that emotional involvement, as if they were seeing the world through American eyes.

In other words, border walls aren’t just border walls. Any place where we have a noteworthy experience becomes tinged with emotion. Kate Jeffery, a neuroscientist at University College London, explains that the amygdala—the emotional center of the brain—plays a role in spatial awareness by sending messages like, This is a place where bad things happen. A border wall, says Jeffery, is a place of complex understandings, including social hierarchies and the ability to separate friends from enemies. And so, we end up with an endless loop. The border wall is tied to an emotion stemming from our experience of that place, and we reconnect to that emotion every time we see it by virtue of the connection between the cognitive map and our emotions.

Not everyone in the shadow of a border wall has strong feelings about it. Israel Yanez, the security guard at Ross clothing store in Brownsville, was nonplussed about the sight of the border wall. In Milpa Verde, Maria Santos, fifty-two, who had emigrated from Mexico and now had to stare at a wall in her backyard that was put there for the sole purpose of stopping others from achieving the same goal told me, in Spanish (translated by her daughter), that she really didn’t think much about the wall at all.

Maybe the very different experiences that Santos and Vanishvili had at their respective borders resulted in very different emotional ties to their cognitive maps of their respective border walls. Santos had the life for with she’d come to America, at least to some extent. Vanishvili had everything taken away from him. And increasingly, it’s experiences like Vanishvili’s—and their resultant pain—that are being replicated at border walls around the world.

Scientists are just beginning to understand the cells that make up our cognitive maps, along with whether, and how, this system interacts with emotional regions of the brain. But we know enough to suspect a connection. When the physical environment changes, so do the map cells, reconfiguring in order to keep us away from danger and on paths that contribute to our survival. “Emotions influence this representation,” says Girardeau. And copious evidence points to the role emotions play in biasing our sense of distance, our estimation of how easy a place is to access, and our assessment of how desirable that destination is. So there is solid reason to think that border walls not only reshape our brain but do so in a way that is entangled with whatever emotions the wall triggers. For people living in borderlands, those emotions are often negative.