At least as far back as Sokrates, people have speculated on the relationship between psychology and politics. In the 20th century, Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm and members of the Frankfurt School (such as Herbert Marcuse) pioneered discussion about how individual dispositions affect one’s social and political ideologies.
On the other hand, social psychologists like Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo have shown how situations can override a person’s usual inclinations and cause them to do something which they would normally abhor, such as killing other people in wartime.
Our understanding of human behaviour has grown dramatically with the development of neuroscience. Many of my future posts will consider what these discoveries tell us about creating healthy human beings, and healthy societies.
Of course, these are very political questions.
One key concept is that of “outside-inside” (in the words of psychologist Arthur Janov). We tend to internalize what we experience in our environments. Food and air, for instance, are obvious examples. It matters whether our food and air are clean or if they are polluted with various toxins.
A second key concept is “neuroplasticity.” Neuroscience has shown that our brains are not static and unchanging. For instance, every thought and feeling in our minds corresponds to a physical change in our brains. Learn something new, and your brain changes.
In other words, every experience in our lives alters our brain.
A third element are the so-called “mirror-neurons,” which are a fundamental to our “social brain” (Dr. Dan Siegel). In brief, these neurons fire in our brains when we observe the feelings of others. In fact, we absorb the feelings of other people so much that Siegel suggested that we call them “sponge neurons.”
Finally, people tend to absorb the dominant values and beliefs of their culture, including its political ideology. Marx wrote that the ideas of the ruling class are the dominant ideas of society, and Gramsci elaborated on the concept of this ideological hegemony.
As political scientist Gary Olson wrote in Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring, “Capitalists maintain domination, in part, through subtly but actively creating society’s prevailing cultural norms.”
Our brains as well as our beliefs are shaped, more than we realize, by the ideology of capitalism, with its emphasis on greed, selfishness, competition and individualism.
In the words of Frans B.M. de Waal, “You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.”
These norms and expectations often overrule our natural compassion, even though it is now clear that “the human brain is hard-wired for empathy,” in Olson’s view.
Finally, research has shown that poverty (e.g. stress, overwork, poor nutrition) take a terrible toll, not only on adults, but children, and even babies in the womb. Not only is physical health damaged, but emotional and intellectual health suffer.
We need to go beyond these symptoms and address the root causes of human suffering.