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Some thoughts on the neurobiology of activism and social change

I got a link to a journal article this morning that inspired me to make note of some ideas about activism and social change that I've been exploring. Here's the abstract:

Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world

Cognition materializes in an interpersonal space. The emergence of complex behaviors requires the coordination of actions among individuals according to a shared set of rules. Despite the central role of other individuals in shaping one's mind, most cognitive studies focus on processes that occur within a single individual. We call for a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference. We argue that in many cases the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain via the transmission of a signal through the environment. Brain-to-brain coupling constrains and shapes the actions of each individual in a social network, leading to complex joint behaviors that could not have emerged in isolation.


I first became aware of the notion of interacting human brains in the late 1990's when I read Allan Schore's Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development (1994). Schore's thesis here was that our early social environment, mediated by our caregivers, directly influences the evolution brain structure that is responsible for our future socio-emotional development (p. 62). Since then, Schore and others have developed such ideas extensively, and in 2012 many practitioners are learning to apply this knowledge in their clinical work.

In one sense I found Schore's book intimidating: 600+ pages, heavily referenced, and almost seeming to be written in code (at that time, my interest in neuroscience at this depth was just emerging). But in many places throughout these pages, my recognition and understanding of the profound nature of these ideas was intuitive. I embraced them, and have remained supercharged to explore them further.

I've especially been interested in how this idea pops up in multiple disciplines of knowledge, and how that information eventually gets translated for a multidisciplinary audience, i.e. how this idea has evolved, and how it is (or is not) being integrated into the practice of conscious evolution. More recently my focus has been on how neuroscience might inform the work of activists in social, racial, economic and environmental justice as they encounter the common spaces of their own emotional development and the emotional life of groups, organizations, and nations. In my own experience as an activist, I have found reflection on neurobiological underpinnings of human affective and cognitive systems to be invaluable.

As I see it, this is but one arena of human life in which the idea that "the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain" might have significant consequences for our success at creating a society that is just for all of its members, and simultaneously supports the evolutionary process of the living systems of Earth as a whole.

A big question in these challenging times is this: will the multi-brained human collective choose to take an evolutionary leap that reverses the course of destruction we've imposed on our Earth-home, or will we choose a devolutionary path that could well end the existence of our species on this planet? Nature itself teaches us that when an ecological system is stressed, greater cooperation among species improves the chances for sustainable conditions for life. Human beings have an option of making cooperation more conscious and intentional. If brain-to-brain coupling among humans indeed shapes the actions of individuals in social networks and leads to complex emergent behaviors, that's important to explore.

The bulk of the article by Hasson, et. al., digs way down into details of brain-to-brain coupling mechanisms. However, their conclusion expands outward to broader territories of possibility that were stimulated within me just reading their abstract. The call of the authors for "a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference" would, (in many fields, I think) serve our species (and others) well as we decide our collective direction at this evolutionary crossroads.