To accentuate is to confirm.

Updated: Aug 26

How understanding neuro-biology might lead to a better understanding of each other.


Those of you who know me, also know that I am not easily seduced to express my opinion. My opinion is relevant only, when – and if, it adds to – and fits in with, a certain context. However, in todays polarised and sometimes even extremist conception of what makes the world go round, I find myself more and more inclined to react. Triggered by the short fuses, the verbal venom, the intolerance, the lack of the ability to listen, I can no longer resist the urge. So, here we go.

For me, there is no left and there is no right. I’m not led by political thinking and my perception of the world in general – and of humanity in particular, may not fit in a box. My moral compass is led by ‘reason’, autonomy and open-mindedness. Victim-thinking works counter productive and being defined along flow charts never did anyone any good. To this day, my past as an education professional has me interested in the development and the complexity of the (human) brain.

Today, for every trait we have, there’s a (virtual) group to belong to. Belonging to a group of like-minded, makes us feel safe and sound. But this same group might be the soil in which tunnel vision and narrow mindedness is being cultivated. If, for example, we are surrounded all day, every day, by people who state that we are victims and action has to be ignited, then that’s when things start to go wrong. Call it the downside of globalisation; we can pick – and limit the world we are exposed to.

The size of the social group of primates correlates with the size of the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex regulates emotions and impulses. It not only ensures that we know how to behave in a group, it even seems as if the brain has evolved on sociality and on the influence of social groups.

When your grandmother gives you a present that you already have, are you telling her or not? This largely depends on the social rules you have been taught. Such social rules are the most complex to learn; the frontal cortex, where these rules are stored, has not fully grown and developed until the age of – at least – 25. In comparison: memorizing a piano piece is already possible at the age of three. In addition, to further complicate matters, the frontal cortex is formed by its environment. Every culture has different social rules. That produces very culture-specific, even person-specific frontal cortexes.

What is particularly special about the frontal cortex of people is that it employs more than one us-them-concept. Put someone in a brain scanner and show him or her pictures of different people. When a coloured face is shown, the average white person activates the amygdala within a quarter of a second. The amygdala deals with fear, threat and aggression. But if a coloured face is shown wearing a cap of the local football team, the person no longer pays attention to skin colour. Our us-them concept is sensitive to and influenced by different perspectives.

Does this mean that it is possible to change the us-them thinking? Are there ways to make the thems not activate the cortex? Well, yes, but it takes a lot for it to work correctly.

Us-them thinking is such a deep-rooted structure in the brain that we cannot just let it disappear. It can be softened by means of long-term contact with the other – for at least six months in a neutral setting, on equal grounds – and by showing and experiencing the world from the perspective of the other.

The more time spent with the other – individually rather than per group – especially when there is a common goal, the more the attitude towards the other changes. But when interaction is short, things get worse and the symbols are emphasised, stressing the differences. Symbols are a constant reminder of them. This is what the human brain does; it thinks in tribal signs, and primitive symbolisms are badly handled by it.

Another intriguing question: what makes people willing to damage and even kill others for symbols such as a flag, a song or a cartoon? This is because the brain's processing of symbols and moral feelings is not yet running very smoothly; moral indignation is located in the same part of the brain as the part that makes us gag when we eat rotten food; a process which has evolved over the last 50.000 years. This means that moral outrage can provoke a physical response. And vice versa: someone surrounded by rotten waste will naturally become more socially conservative.

Biology is at the root of both our best and worst behaviour. To complicate matters further, the same behaviour can count as good behaviour in one context and bad behaviour in another context. By understanding our brain, hormones, genes, evolution and culture, we can increase understanding and acceptance.

When we think of someone as family, we are the most altruistic species the world has ever seen. But conversely, if we think of someone as a stranger, we are the most cruel species the world has ever seen. Who the we is and who the they, is very easy to manipulate, positively or negatively, but the distinction itself is very deeply ingrained in our brains.

What we see today, is that manipulation and overly stimulation of the insular cortex is greatly influenced by (social) media, which can (and does) lead to polarisation and extremism. But at the same time, it also enables us to feel the pain of someone on the other side of the planet. As said, positively or negatively, our reach has expanded enormously.

Last but not least, there’s good old goodwill. We have to wánt a change to occur. We have to actually accept that the current situation is in need of improvement. Is this really the world we want our children to be exposed to and to grow up in? This and an – albeit slight – understanding of neuro-biology combined with the ability to use our brain in a conscious way, should lead to an improved world…At least, I’d like to think so.

Source: Robert Sapolsky

Neuro-biologist Robert Sapolsky is the author of the book 'Behave'. In it, he describes how people can be both extremely violent and altruistic due to the same biological causes.


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