Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
Our brains, emotions, feelings, nervous systems are all one piece, or rather a series of extremely complex pieces of interlinking processes. These processes build naturally one upon the other, following evolution -- while expressing our social nature. This social nature is hardwired into our genes and brains. With the expansion of brain and neuroscientific research in recent years, new or long abandoned topics of psychological study have appeared for re-examination. The nature of consciousness can now be studied from a new biological perspective thanks to modern brain neuroimaging techniques. As Rebecca Saxe highlights in her TEDTalk, "How We Read Each Other's Minds," brain structure and function can now be linked to actual psychological activities and tasks -- such as empathy and moral development. Who we are, what we think, and how we behave -- often depend on the intricate details of one's neural machinery. This machinery can set in motion much of our human condition. As a recent scan of any day's news will reveal -- we are both capable of great social acts for another -- but also we have the capacity for great cruelty. We may have modern clothes -- but we still often have 'stone age' brains. As the psychologist Carl Jung stated, we must learn not to deny but to accept (and constructively channel) the dark animal nature that is part of all of us.
The neuroscientist David Eagleman has remarked:
"Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption. When the frontal lobe is compromised, people become 'disinhibited,' unmasking the presence of the base animalistic instincts and elements deep in ancient neural networks and brain structures."
As a psychotherapist and researcher, I have found that the severity of the traumas and the kinds of abusive experiences can often disrupt brain function and development. This can lead to lower frontal brain cortex activation -- which has implications for impulsivity, reduced empathy, addictive potential, as well as all sorts of maladaptive reactions (including criminal behavior). This is offered, not as an excuse for bad human behavior, but as a needed understanding. There is an order or organization in destructive human behavior which can be illuminated with research and clinical observation -- and can have many implications for intervention. Neuroscience is providing a major piece of the puzzle towards this understanding -- but only a piece. We must convert the information of neuroscience into cultural knowledge and practical applications (such as developing a more scientifically-informed and humane criminal justice system). I am not sure that transcranial magnetic stimulation (as demonstrated in the video) or other purely biological interventions are the answer. One should be wary of quick fixes and state control paradigms.
Western science has the tendency to view things as biological determinism -- in a linear way. The reality of human behavior is far more complex and has multiple reciprocal influences.Jonathan Appel
It is also perhaps that brain development (or the lack of it) is merely one correlate. Western science has the tendency to view things as biological determinism -- in a linear way. The reality of human behavior is far more complex and has multiple reciprocal influences. All anthropoids (primates) including humans, are indeed bio-cultural beings. We are neither completely biologically determined, nor blank slates (Tabula Rasa), upon which culture is foisted. Rather, identity and our individually and collective humanity emerge out of a mutually active and creative dynamic process -- which we do not yet completely comprehend.
Our higher nature is hardwired into us. As demonstrated in Rebecca Saxe's talk -- our brains do function to help create empathy and morality. But -- how we act can also alter our biology. We are brains perceiving other brains. We are also likely more than merely that -- and we must have the wisdom of transforming and integrating brain knowledge ultimately into a better collective self-understanding and a more compassionate world. This can be the wisdom of neuroscience.
Dr. Jonathan Appel has worked in the field of behavioral health for over two decades. He has worked with individuals, groups, families, and organizations as a counselor, psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, program director, consultant, researcher and educator. He is currently an associate professor in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio.
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