The Well-Tuned Brain Reviewed

Doctor Peter Whybrow’s 2015 book The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience and the Life Well Lived offers biological and psychological mechanisms for failing societies and successful ones.   Would that we read and heed.

He opens quoting John Dewey’s test of all political institutions and industrial arrangements: whether “they make to the all-around growth of every member of society.”  Who asks such questions these days, and who has answers?

He reminds us of our recent context.  Our population has doubled since the 1950’s and our economy has increased eight-fold.  But the benefits haven’t gone to most of us.  While most people in 2012 thought the top fifth of our society owned about 60% of the wealth and the bottom two-fifths owned almost 10%, the reality was far worse.  The bottom doesn’t fend for 10% of the wealth, but a mere 0.3%.  And the top doesn’t own a mere 10%; it’s more like almost 85%. The wealth of the top 1% went from about 16% of our economy in the 50’s through the 80’s, while in 2007 it took almost a fourth.  We in the U.S. have some 23 square feet of box store space for each of us while Sweden has a mere 3 feet per person.  Are we seven times happier and healthier than those in Sweden?  The poor among us are the wealthy of the world, yet are we happy?

Our heads spin with paragraphs like that but our lives spin worse from all the social, psychological, and medical blunders that make for such an unequal society.  He starts with brain science and ends with intimations of advice for individuals and institutions.

He reminds us our brains are 90% formed by age six but that then grow for another twenty years.  New synapses are formed and others pruned, but some are myleniated, sheathed in a fatty protector that speeds impulses from about 20 MPH unsheathed to 270 MPH when myleniated.  The same process that locks in our sense of native language by about age four locks in our typical thinking by age twenty four.  This fast thought comes as intuition.  If the wiring is good we can trust it, but if it’s not, it’s also hard to change.

Whybrow applies brain processes to economic, educational and other aspects of our society.  Recent advances in tools used to map and time activity in the brain (from early EEG to CT to PET to MRI and to fMRI) allow scientists to map which thoughts come when, go where, and what results.  Basically, input goes to the back of the brain, then is evaluated by the fear-monitor in the mid-brain before the fore-brain even knows it.  How well the fore-brain handles this information matters greatly, but how well that functions is set by our character.

It is character that could help us forego immediate rewards like eating two doughnuts for longer-term benefits like staying slender.  But our advertising-laden consumer-driven society teaches indulgence more than integrity.  We inherit cellular memories of scarcity and wariness rarely relevant in an abundant and peaceful society.  Michael Pollan’s “We are overfed and undernourished” applies to more than just diet.

Two ongoing mistakes impede us.  We don’t honor and provide the close human interaction and sense of safety needed in children for their growing brains to feel safe and curious.  We test; Finland touches.  We say “No Child Left Behind” as we make them adapt to a work ethic complete with tension over testing.  Finland pays their teachers well, lets them have time for the children, and brings those children along intellectually as they are ready.  Anxious hurt children won’t learn well.  Those who are read to early on don’t get as much from the content of the book as from sitting on a trustworthy person’s lap.

The second mistake is failing to instill character as children become young adults.  We indulge; they flounder.  A lack of self-control scatters the mind and diverts young adults into being consumers more than citizens.  Their thinking largely set, they then think with the shallowest of slogans into adulthood.  Such persons get elected to inflict the same sort of harsh attitudes on the next generation as came from the last.

Whybrow reminds us Adam Smith didn’t say we would have a good economy if we all agree to be greedy together.  That’s a cheap, rationalized twist to his work.  Smith’s cardinal values were fairness, benevolence, and prudence. Nowhere is raiding the Commons praised.  We pursue self-interest while also tending the overall good.  Knowing what others want from an exchange (empathy for another) is crucial to both sides getting what they want on an ongoing basis.  The healthy economy is mutual.

The “invisible hand of the market” may have worked when we lived in stable communities of about 150 people, as was typical in our prehistory.  In a crowded, highly mobile society of autonomous individuals where limited-liability companies can buy ownership of slogans and quality, cheapen the product, cheat the workers, harm the environment, and skip out in bankruptcy – we don’t know them, can’t control them, and can’t get back at them.  When the sarcastic comment from a movie that “greed is good” was taken as character to be modeled, we were in for trouble.  In my terms, when corporations are coddled as persons, and then act like psychopaths, we, our society, and our environment will all suffer.

Whybrow favors Friedrich von Hayek as an economist.  While John Maynard Keynes (the other main economist of the last century) favored centralized governmental manipulation of markets, Hayek saw promise in a more organic individualized approach.  Each person’s desires and decisions become part of a resilient mix.  Conservatives and Libertarians favor Hayek.  While Whybrow shows how Hayek and Adam Smith are more nuanced than many conservatives take them, he also seems to fall into conservative assumptions about human nature.  Struggle and competition among selfish people is assumed, but the generous and communal aspect of our social nature is barely acknowledged.  Thus the bonds of sharing and cooperation languish and get exploited by the greedy and callous, who  reap both wealth and praise.  What kind of intuitive character and resulting society comes of win/lose thinking rather than win/win?

Are we in this thing together, and if so, how?  Modern neuroscience unveils the potential magistracy of ordinary humans when loved abundantly and related fairly.  fMRI mapping shows how our preconscious thoughts and mirror neurons prime us for reactivity that either lashes out in anxious anger or automatically cares in mutual empathy.   It depends on the sorts of character our families and society foster.  Once we claimed to follow the inclusive, kind, wise examples of Jesus or Gautama.  Now we flounder, fleeced by egotistic takers, trying to copy them to secure stature in community.  What has become of any vision of a whole, healthy, human community living happily and well in an ever more abundant and beautiful ecosystem?  Whybrow offers clues to the answers of how that would be facilitated were we to have such vision.

Byron Carrier

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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