Monday, May 4, 2015

Our Brains Are Wired to Connect with Kindness: Fear & Hate Are Learned

This weekend a friend’s statement regarding the Baltimore riots that occurred last Monday got picked up by an online media outlet:

“People keep saying ‘How can they burn their own neighborhoods?’

They aren't. These aren't their neighborhoods, it's just where we've put them. If these neighborhood were ‘Theirs’ do you think they'd have liquor stores instead of groceries? Blocks of boarded up homes over a vivacious and proud culture of home ownership? Check cashing shops and predatory pay day loan establishments over community banks? Vacant lots instead of community parks?

They didn't burn down their home. They burnt down their prison.

This is the forgotten generation of a forgotten generation. There is no social network of upward mobility to learn from. There are no jobs to be had. There is no hope or future that they can see from corner to corner. Without hope, without a future... you have nothing to lose. Why NOT riot?

Truly, as we've seen throughout the media, these types of sentiments don’t comprise the majority of the coverage on the Baltimore riots, but they should. Why? Because it’s everyone’s first natural inclination to see other people--all other people--as a reflection of themselves. It’s only when learned thought processes start that we begin to distinguish between “us” and “them”.

In a 2014 article by Athena Staik, Staik discusses brain research by Dr. Marco Iacoboni that asserts we as humans are hard-wired to connect with others in a caring and moral way, and we have our mirror neurons in our brains to thank for that.

Have you ever cried during a movie (or, if you’re me, at a commercial on TV)? The way mirror neurons function can be illustrated by these instances. According to Staik, “Remarkably, [Iacoboni’s] studies show that, by default, the brain sees other people as reflections of ourselves, as if we’re looking at ourselves in a mirror. This explains why when someone smiles, we tend to smile back automatically without really ‘wanting’ to. That’s because it takes more effort not to smile back than to smile.”

She goes on to say:
“Though we can learn to fear and hate, to think of another group as our enemy, left on our own devices, we are wired for empathy, wired to be good and kind to one another...

Dr. Iacoboni points out that dichotomous labels can be used, strategically, to condition the brain to access our otherwise useful ability to categorize, in this case, combined with intense fear, to cause us to feel separate from one another, to experience other human beings as ‘objects,’ that pose threats to us. This disconnects us from our innate ability to empathize with others and experience our natural response to form human connections.”

Staik later presents the results of an experiment that took place during the 2014 election:
“Dr. Iacoboni showed members who defined themselves as either Democrats or Republicans party photographs of candidates. When participants viewed an image of a politician within their party, their mirror neurons fired strongly. They empathized with fellow party members. They could imagine being that politician.

In contrast, when the picture was of the opposition party candidate, an interesting thing happened. At first, the participant's mirror neurons fired. This indicated a natural empathy response occurred at first glance of another human being. When thought patterns activated awareness of affiliation with another party, however, the mirror neuron activity was suppressed.  Thus, for participants of either party, until the learned protective response was activated for the candidate of the other party, the first response was to empathize.”

While always acting on our natural empathy response alone could at times be harmful (imagine a child getting into stranger’s car to help him find a puppy), we've made a habit out of not thinking past our self-imposed rules--those things we've learned and followed that override the signals that come from our mirror neurons. At first, we learn these things from our parents, our teachers, and our peers, and as we get older, there are very few instances where we encounter an environment where it’s safe for us to re-analyze these thought habits. I’ll never forget a phone call I had with my mom my third year of undergrad. We were arguing over religion. Views we had both previously shared were now only the views of my mom, as mine had changed. She told me she wished I’d never went to college. Since then, we've made up and agreed to disagree, but had I not left the environment I’d been in for 18 years, I might not have ever re-evaluated my thought processes for certain things. Now, at 36, I doubt there will be many more, if any, instances where I find myself in an environment that challenges my thoughts as much as going away to college did. This is why it’s of the utmost importance to me that I remain aware, present, and mindful in everyday life. It’s only through self-imposed examination that I’m able to reinforce, clarify, or change my perspective, and I’d like to suggest that this sort of self-examination is something you do too. 

But why do so? Well there’s an added benefit to allowing yourself to stay connected to others who you might otherwise detach from once a thought processes kicks in. According to Staik, “We are wired to feel good when we are good or kind toward others...” Yes, connecting with someone you might not typically go out of your way to connect with makes you feel good. It makes them feel good too, because they feel validation. I personally think this type of connection is of the utmost importance, and it’s something we can all do in great part throughout our daily lives. Let someone in a hurry go ahead of you in line. Offer help to someone you see struggling. Talk to people you encounter in the service industry the way you would talk to your best friend. Make eye contact. Smile. Try to find some common ground even where you assume there is none. Challenge your internal dialogue, stick with that first gut reaction, and see if lingering in that moment of connection with another person challenges or changes your learned response to the situation. Afterword think about the interaction. What did you learn?

All of society’s ills aren't going to be solved by you going out of your comfort zone to connect with another individual, but I do think it’s the first step in beginning to affect real change. Instead of looking away from people and situations that you don’t like, try to put yourself in their place. What might be uncomfortable for a minute will help to break down the walls between “us” and “them”. Only when we are all “us” will change start to take place in physically liberating people (who many don’t even want to acknowledge exist) from their “prisons,” as my friend so aptly put it.

Empathy is not agreeing or disagreeing with what someone does--it's not judgment. Empathy is a natural response, and trying to understand what drives a person to do something and connecting with them on a human level is one small thing we can all do in our daily lives.

One last word of advice: always remain aware, present, and mindful so that you don’t fall prey to the unnecessary hate and fear that is projected in your environment. I’ve tried very hard over the last week to flood Facebook with positive stories and stories with differing perspectives from the typical media outlets so that people who aren’t here in the middle what’s going on can get a more accurate picture that will help influence how they form their beliefs. In the words of Staik: “Now if only our major media and entertainment sources could be persuaded to stop mirroring misleading and harmful depictions of our nature and relationships.”

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