HOW CAN THIS PROJECT BETTER INFORM OUR UNDERSTANDING OF VIOLENCE?
While the brain is just one of our body’s organs, it is unique in its profound complexity. As a result, we know far less about brain science than any other science. Considering this is the organ we use to consider, it is ironic how little we know about it. Because we tend to mystify and often fear the things we do not understand we have put the workings of the brain in a category in which fear, stigmatization, shame, and discrimination are associated with any atypical brain function. While we know little of the detailed intricacies of brain function, we do know that the brain is the house of our memories, feelings, and behaviors. Therefore, if a behavior is abnormal or atypical, it must be the organic and tangible consequence of abnormal chemistry and structure.
What Makes the Human Brain Special?
The brain serves as the integrating hub of our senses, experiences, and behaviors. It does this by functioning as the central regulator of our ‘nervous system’ (NS), the network of nerve cells that send signals to and receive signals from the brain. The NS coordinates all aspects of bodily function (for example heart rate, respiration, digestion, movement, and modes of communication) as well as serving to transmit information from our senses about our environment as well as the functioning of our peripheral organs to the brain. Virtually all animals have a brain (or at least a network of nerve cells) to serve this function. What makes humans special?
All other animal species are resigned to playing a brutal game of evolution via natural selection. They must rely on the diversity of their combined genetic pool to respond to environmental adversity. If their gene pool does not contain an adequate response to a threat – a new predator, a virus, or food scarcity, for example – then they go extinct. If there is an appropriate genetic response (faster legs, stronger immune system, bigger and fatter beaks to crack tough nuts and seeds) those animals will survive long enough to mate and pass on their fit genes to their offspring. All the other animals must genetically adapt to suit their environment. But humans are not entirely resigned to playing by these rules. If we need to crack a tough nut, we build a nut cracker. To a great extent, we adapt the environment to suit us. Think of the astounding environmental adaptations we have contrived to explore outer space, the bottoms of the oceans, even our homes with central air, refrigerators, and microwave ovens.
The neocortex and the human capacity for imagination
How do we do this? It is not a bigger brain that allows us to cheat the rules. Rather, it is the growth of a specialized part of the human brain, the outer part, called the neocortex, that makes us unique. The relative amount of neocortex a species has, significantly correlates with the size of group the species lives in. Therefore, we homo sapiens, evolved to live in large groups because we have big neocortices, or we evolved big neocortices because we live in large groups. Regardless, we are resigned, by genetic design, to live in large groups, in communities.
Interestingly, this neocortex is the part of the brain we use to integrate information from our senses, store our memories, where our motor commands come from, and where our ability to communicate lies. In essence, the neocortex is where our imagination comes from. What sets humans aside from all the other animals is a profound capacity for imagination – the ability to create new ideas or concepts that are not present in the external world. Just as animal survival relies on genetic diversity, human survival relies on the diversity and sharing of ideas. This is an adaptation of the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins’ concept of Memetics. We require memetic diversity to evolve – in fact, to survive. To build and maintain a diverse imagination pool we must each find a way to both share our own ideas as well as embrace and explore the ideas of others. Click here to learn more about neuroscience basics
We humans are wired to view ourselves as part of a group
The complex wiring of the neocortex that gives rise to a need to belong in a group, also gives rise to one’s social identity. We are wired to view ourselves as part of, or members of, a group. We are wired to divide the people of the world into social groups. In-groups are the ones we belong to or ‘us’, and out-groups are the ones we do not belong to, ‘them’. Additionally, we are also wired to be biased towards our in-group and against the out-group.
These biases can be good in that they offer profoundly important feelings of belonging, comradery, security, meaning, and purpose. But it must be kept in mind that these benefits often come at the cost of alienating, marginalizing, discriminating, objectifying, or dehumanizing the out-group. In-group and out-group biases also lead to what is called cognitive bias – a deviation from rational and objective judgement.
The promise of neuroplasticity
Another feature of the neocortex lies in its plastic nature. The neocortex is incredibly flexible in that it can adapt and change in response to environmental experiences; we call this neuroplasticity. The way in which the neocortex is wired dictates how we perceive the world around us, what is filtered in, relevant, of conscious attention, the basis by which we construct our reality, and determines how we respond or react to our experiences. When our experiences are new, we create new connections, and neural “circuits.” Click here to learn more about neuroplasticity
This is the extraordinary potential on which Peace ReWire is based:
You Can Rewire Your Brain for Peace!
Learn more about:
Can I really rewire my brain?
The plasticity of the brain and its potential both in terms of prevention and rehabilitation
What about the rest of my body?
Beyond the brain: an embodied cognitive science.