Tue Aug 25th, 2009 at 07:27:03 AM EST
Madeline Bunting, in a piece in the Guardian today, outlines some of issues being thrown up by current research on how human brains work:
This humbling evidence of our hopeless decision-making exposes consumer capitalism as not being about millions of independent decisions of individuals expressing unique identities, but about how social norms can be manipulated to create eager shoppers. Or take the idea of introducing choice into public services; some bizarre consequences will result, such as the popularity of a hospital being determined by whether it has a car park, not the skill of medical staff.
There are two other areas of this new brain research which are arguably more important. First, we have much underestimated the social nature of the brain: how primed it is to recognise, interpret and respond all the time to the input of others and how that lays down patterns which govern our behaviour. We are herd-like animals who show a strong tendency to conform with group norms; what makes our brains so much bigger than other primates is this remarkable capacity for social skills such as empathy, co-operation and fairness. Instead of the old metaphor of individuals as discrete entities like billiard balls, we need to think instead of them as nodes in a relationship network.
The second area of astonishing discoveries is in the plasticity of the brain. We talk of "hardwiring" (computers have generated many misleading metaphors for the brain) but in fact, the brain can be changed. Parts of the brain can learn entirely new tricks. Neural pathways are not fixed, and even much of the damage done by deprivation in childhood can be repaired with the right circumstances of example, support and determination. We can shape our own brains to create new habits that we might have thought we were not capable of – it's a long, hard process but it is possible.
This all may seem remote from politics, but it's not. Jon Cruddas has a habit of startling audiences by arguing that the regeneration of the left requires a convincing new account of what it is to be human. Are human beings self-interested creatures or are they collaborative? The right's argument for market capitalism is rooted in the former but the research on the social brain supports the latter. Put crudely, we are social creatures with an inbuilt tendency to co-operate and seek out each other's approval and that is probably more important in determining day-to-day behaviours than narrowly conceived self-interest.
Now, there's a lot to argue with in the piece, but it lays out the scope of the debate pretty well, and she's actually written it, which rather trumps the collection of half-scribbled bits and pieces I've been meaning to turn into a post on the subject .