How can we understand human nature?
Our Human Mind
When we look at the world we may wonder, why is humanity so divided? Neuroscience can help us to better understand this, beginning with the simple fact that our brains were designed to solve problems and keep us safe.
During thousands of generations our human brains evolved to precondition us to act on two opposing behaviours: we are wired for Collaboration with In-Groups in order to secure our progress, and we are wired for Defensiveness against Out-Groups in order to secure our survival. Professor Joshua Greene points out: “Biologically speaking humans were designed for cooperation, but only with some people. Our brains are wired for tribalism. We intuitively divide the world into Us and Them (or those who are like us and those who are not like us in some way) and favor Us over Them” (Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes, p. 55).This background is extremely relevant for understanding human interaction as it explains that, wanting to ensure our safety, we are wired to assume negative intentions from those we see as different from us.
That means that even when we consciously choose to connect positively with a person from an “Out-Group” we have some evolutionary baggage that is often operating on an unconscious level within us.
There are several mental processes active in us that will need conscious effort to overcome, such as Implicit Bias and Motivated Reasoning. These further explain why it is so hard to overcome the “Us against Them Thinking.” When humans lived in tribal groups, this capacity secured our survival. But what was constructive is now destroying our chances for human survival as it hinders collaboration in our current global crisis.
Neuroscience also offers an element of hope: we are wired, but not hardwired, to think through the dividing lens of Us and Them. Our human brains can be rewired through transformative learning experiences and by practicing constructive dialogue.
Our Mental Processes
Fear of the Other: Psychologist Shawn T. Smith points out that our minds are the result of decisions made by thousands of generations that helped us survive. Our minds are wired to protect us, to stop, and look for dangers. When the mind fears for our safety it grabs our attention aggressively through physical symptoms of anxiety and fear. The problem is that there is no physiological differentiation between real and perceived dangers (e.g. from domestic fears of “Did I leave the oven on?” to social fears “Is this a terrorist?”, we can have strong physical reactions BEFORE knowing the facts). S.T. Smith reminds us that as you cannot avoid your own heartbeat, you can also not stop the mind’s quest to protect us! Yet, what we can do is train ourselves to override impulses and rewire the brain and with time and practice to develop Psychological Flexibility.
(Sources: Joshua Greene, Modern Tribes, 2013; Jonathan Haidt , The Righteous Mind, 2013; Shawn T. Smith, The Users Guide to the Human Mind, 2011)