April 2nd, 2002

Jivan Vatayan forwards this optimistic article by three leading scientists. They review our present knowledge of neuroscience and some of the implicatons that can be drawn from that knowledge for the future of human cooperation. 

We Are Not Prisoners of Our Brains

Daniel S. Levine, Riane Eisler & Sam Leven

Considerable evidence exists both from laboratory animals and from humans that brain development is profoundly influenced after birth by social interactions. In humans this is most true before the age of about 7, but development of the frontal lobes, the major area involved in planning and in moral development, occurs through adolescence. Even in adult life, while new neural connections are seldom formed, existing neural connections are continually being strengthened or weakened by experience. The complexity and plasticity of our brains argues against statements by sociobiologists that the possible forms of human societies are severely constrained by our genetics.

We have capacities both for “fight-or-flight” responses and for what the social psychologist Shelley Taylor recently termed “tend-and-befriend” responses.

This means that social and cultural organization both shapes and is shaped by our brain biochemistry. We will particularly review some early results by many research groups on the biochemistry of loving, caring, and positive social interactions, in which the hormone oxytocin (which seems to both release and be released by caring) plays a major role. Oxytocin interacts with neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, to reduce stress and to inhibit the negative effects of addictive drugs. Tentatively we suggest that this brain system for caring also inhibits the effects of other kinds of harmful addiction, such as addictions to violence, jealousy, unequal hierarchies, gender and racial stereotyping, and overwork.

Some sociobiological theories suggest that unequal economic and political hierarchies and sharp gender divisions are an inevitable result of our evolutionary adaptations as a species, and that the best we can do is try to be as cooperative as possible within these evolutionary constraints. Our work argues otherwise. It suggests that human nature is neither “good” nor “evil” but that genetics offers us a range of possible behavior patterns that social arrangements can either enhance or suppress. Organizing society to shift the balance in our brains toward caring is a matter of choice. We give a few examples in our full paper from such areas as education, parenting, government policy, and social customs. …

Our goal is applying what knowledge we have to increasing the level of caring and cooperation in the world. With this goal in mind, what are some take-home messages of the studies we report from neuroscience, experimental psychology, and clinical neuropsychology?

The first take-home message is that the question of “nature versus nurture” is not the most productive question to ask. The nature-nurture distinction is an artefact, because brain pathways continue to be laid down after birth, and those pathways most responsible for our unique personalities continue to be laid down through puberty. Even later, what behavioral possibilities are expressed largely hinges on family, educational, work, and other social, economic, and cultural cues.

A more fruitful question to ask is “what forms of nurture bring out the most desirable qualities in human nature?” We use “nurture” more broadly than just primary caregiving and the home environment, though those are extremely important. We also include influences on the child’s development from schools, religious institutions, the mass media, and social programs such as day care and youth recreation facilities. And we use “human nature” to describe a genetically derived range of possible neural responses and behaviors.

The second message is that caring or noncaring people are not born so much as they are made by circumstances and their own choices. At least some violent people are changeable by outside influences. A real-life recent example in the United States was Larry Trapp, an officer in Nebraska of the racist Ku Klux Klan, who changed from an advocate of hate, prejudice, and violence to an advocate of racial and religious tolerance and caring. This dramatic change was brought about by his relationship with a courageous Jewish couple who had responded with caring to his hate messages (Dallas Morning News, September 9, 1992).

While some criminals may be deficient in brain pathways involved in empathy, this may not be the majority of criminals. And even those who do have brain damage often have acquired it through childhood abuse or head injury. It is even less likely that brain damage accounts for the behavior of people who are part of a destructive system, such as Nazi officials or executives of polluting corporations.

Most of us have a genetic spectrum that can range between acts of the most heroic empathic caring and acts of the most unfeeling cruelty. Cruelty is related to excessive activity of a “fight-or-flight” system in the brain designed to cope with threats to survival. Caring is related to the activity of a system in the brain designed to promote cooperation, love, and family and social bonding. Both of these systems are necessary for our effective functioning, and both are the products of millions of years of evolution across reptiles and mammals. Maintaining the balance between the fight-or-flight and bonding systems is delicate. The results we cite indicate that the amount of stress in the social environment has a great effect on the balance point between these two systems.

The final, and most important, message is that science supports the belief that both social policies and social customs make a difference in human behavior. The enormous effects of positive or negative childhood experience on the adult brain supports the conclusion that a basic investment by society in quality child care, education, and family-friendly employment and vacation policies is not only morally right but economically sound. This means that the “race to the bottom” of social welfare and wages occurring in the early stages of economic globalization needs to be replaced by a world-wide adoption of policies similar to those that have been adopted in the last half century in much of western Europe. Details of such policies are omitted for space reasons, but many can be found in Eisler (1995, 2000), and on the web site www.partnershipway.org in the interviews with Riane Eisler entitled Building a Just and Caring World, Economics Keynote Lecture, and Reclaiming our Humanity.

These same books and interviews also give examples of changes that need to take place at the level of customs. These involve reclaiming the emphasis of partnership as opposed to domination as the cornerstone of human relations. This means that many uncaring relationships which have been accepted as normal need to be seen instead as aberrations that society should strongly discourage. One example is school bullying, which has received much attention since the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado (Aronson, 2000). Others include male oppression of women, eroticization of violence, repression of sexual pleasure, overpopulation due to restrictions on contraception, religious glorification of self-induced pain, and cultural glorification of war.

These can be replaced by a valuing of pleasure-based partnership and reciprocity, a positive, spiritual view of sexuality, and cultural glorification of peace. Our brains do not guarantee that we will do so, but provide the capacities for doing so.

Read the full paper

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