Us, and Them

What does your brain need to function normally? Beyond the nutrients from the food you eat, beyond the oxygen you breathe, beyond the water you drink, there’s something else, something equally as important: it needs other people. Normal brain function depends on the social web around us. Our neurons require other people’s neurons to thrive and survive.

David Eagleman, The Brain; Chapter introduction to Chapter 5: Do I Need You?; 2015; New York

Unnoticed by many, neuroscience, the science of the brain, has made progress over the past ten to twenty years which one can perhaps only describe with moving from the medieval ages to enlightenment with lightning speed. We research on the brain since hundreds of years, may be even much more, if all early attempts to understand it are included. We do apply modern methods of science since a century, or more. But it is the cutting edge result of research of the past fifteen years which makes us say that we are entering a new phase of understanding who we are; who we are not; what is constituting our conscious self awareness; and how this is embedded into a much larger context of the subconscious which we mostly are not aware of. But even more, modern neuroscience begins to help us understanding to which extent we need the interrelationship between us and others, and what it means for the “self”, and what it does to us. The borderline between the self and the outer world becomes more and more porous. We are all more interconnected with the entire world than the concept of an independent self makes us want to believe.

David Eagleman’s book is based on a PBS series “The Brain”. These six episodes are the most awesome piece of popular science made public I have come across in many years. It should be viewed in schools and universities, and everybody can, you can get it in the iTunes Store, for example.

In Chapter 5, findings of neuroscience are demonstrated that connect to my personal understanding of the effects of trauma, how it affects me, and people like me. Chapter 5 also includes important clues to understanding societal interactions of many people that lead to violence, destruction, xenophobia, and genocide. As Eagleman says, brains have traditionally been studied in isolation, but that approach overlooks the effect that an enormous amount of brain circuitry has to do with other brains. Our brains are primed for social interaction, from a moment on we appear to not have memories of, from the moment we are given birth. Babies at the age of one year have a complex capacity to differentiate between trustworthy action and the opposite, before even understanding language.

The self does not exist in isolation to others. We know that, we would agree to it, and perhaps the extent to which this is true can be seen when looking at persons who suffer from having less ability to empathize, such as persons suffering from autism, or from sociopathy. Both are deficiencies in complex interaction of subsystems of the brain circuitry. By no means they are moral or behavioral deficiencies, emerging understanding goes deep into the knowledge of the brain being interconnected with other brains.

The understanding of how individuals relate to Ingroups and Outgroups, to groups to which we belong, and to groups we feel we do not belong, it all is affected by how the trillions of synapses of a brain relate to other sets of trillions of synapses, and billions of those. It is kind of a challenge to accept that interdependency with others is not something that we decide, but that is built into our fabric on most fundamental levels. To those who are challenged by the thought that we depend on entities outside of ourselves on a deep level, here is another thought: The average adult human being is carrying several pounds of living matter that appear to not belong to the body itself, with entirely different DNA, living in co-existence, sometimes parasitic, sometimes in symbiosis: Bacteria. But it goes beyond: Take these bacteria away from your body, and you will die in a very short while. You can simply not exist without of these billions and billions of other living beings inside yourself.

The same goes with empathy. Empathy is a fundamental mechanism of the brain, and it is activating the same brain circuitry that is activated when you feel pain. Especially when you are being left out: If people do not cooperate with you, but leave you out, fMRI scans show that the parts of your pain fire up which also light up when you feel physical pain.

So, belonging to a group makes us feel good. Meaning that the question arises how we relate to people which we wold categorize as not being part of the groups we feel good with.

It is here where Eagleman’s book is becoming so fascinating read for me: He is referring to the genocide in Rwanda, the genocide in Srebrenica, and also making it clear that so many more of these situations exist, like the killing of millions of Armenians by Turks in 1915, or the Nazi Holocaust, and much more. All of a sudden, when reading his book, I am back in Sarajevo: Eagleman interviews Hasan Nuhanovic, who worked as a translator in the United Nation’s mission UNPROFOR on the compound where his family was seeking refuge. He survived, and he lost his family, when the UN commander decided to open the gates, exposing 8.000 Bosniak Muslims to the hellhounds of Ratko Mladic’s genocidaires. I know Hasan personally, I employed him in the European  Union Police Mission, we revered him, and we made it a regular habit to have him educating the International Community about the consequences of the genocide in Srebrenica.

Eagleman tries to understand what transforms neighbors into killers. Individuals who have been in more or less peaceful coexistence for a lifetime, and their ancestors since hundreds of years, they seem to be able to mutate into monstrous torturers and killers within a brief moment.

I would not conclude, from what I understand, that the reasons for this are entirely understood. But neuroscience offers clues: Empathy works with Ingroups. The brain shows visibly less activity in circuitry related to empathy when considering somebody to be part of an Outgroup. As he says, these areas of the brain become short-circuited, they do not longer participate in decision making. Empathy disengages. We don’t care any more. To me, this is the entry point into dehumanization.

Read, or watch, his experiment: Brain scan people who see pictures of hands being stabbed by a needle, and how the brain reacts in case you tell the person that this hand belongs to somebody in a group you identify with, or not. The same picture can create either a firestorm in the brain, let me say, in case you are a Democrat and you are being told that this person is a Democrat, or a Republican. Or, a German, and a migrant from North Africa. Or a Christian, and a Muslim. Depending on which side you belong to, your brain reacts different to the same picture, depending on how you label the picture: For example, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) of the brain is engaging differently in case we are thinking of other people, or inanimate objects: People looking at pictures of homeless people show much less activity in the mPFC compared to pictures of people they relate to. Dehumanization, made visible on a brain scanner.

Now, I am leaving the narrative of Eagleman’s book of my beautiful city Sarajevo to the reader. But I do ask how this translates into contemporary empathy with people suffering in conflict areas, and when they arrive, millions of them, having successfully escaped, at the borders of, say, European Union States.

Think about it: Your reaction to a picture of a child found on a shore, drowned because the boat overloaded with refugees capsized, it creates viral replication in social media, storms of empathy flare up, because you can identify: A child is a child. But if you see troves of people waiting at some European countries border, your reaction might be different, though the only real difference is that these people did not drown, they made it. Empathy makes all the difference in your reaction.

I want to leave it there for today. My thoughts go deeper, naturally I am trying to find an entry point into the xenophobic elements of a discussion that also has justified elements, such as respect of migrants for societal values in those countries welcoming migrants escaping from horrible violence, and the way how the social networks in these societies appear to explode with fear, and hate.

Education is the key. The great simplifiers, those who trumpet their rallying sounds for hate from the TV stations and the Internet, they need to be countered by an educated debate. Fair, tough with those who disrespect values, but also tolerant with those who may want to learn values they have never been exposed to before.

How can I blame somebody who, from the moment of being a baby on, has been either taught male supremacy, or female subordination? We all learn from copying what our parents and caregivers tell us.

But we can engage in discussions, learn, and help in learning.

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