In February, we usually celebrate romantic love and the legacy of historic Presidencies. Yet for more than half the population, it’s a tricky month here in the northern hemisphere: February carries both the depth of winter’s cold and a celebration of the often-sought and infrequently-found warmth of authentic, real, life-long connection to another human being.
This particular February is even trickier: our society finds itself wrestling with high anxiety – a surprising election result contradicting the popular will, a difficult transition, a dystopian inauguration, global protests and demonstrations with historic numbers, and now the closure of America’s borders and ports to the most vulnerable and desperate, an act that violates some of our most treasured and celebrated societal core values.
Today, we want to address some of what we are witnessing in our nation by a closer look at what it means to be human. Indeed, we can see that human biology itself helps explains some of this tribalistic behavior.
Tribalism – or the fear of the “other,” the “outsider” – is an ancient part of the human brain.In the early days of our emergence from the savanna, recognizing differences could be life-preserving. The brain, therefore, evolved so that it might detect differences and “warn” us that something was not consistent with our previous experiences. Today, that same neurological system operates in an area that we designate as a primitive or lower level brain function. During pregnancy, this region emerges earlier in brain development than later features, such as the pre-frontal cortex.
In fact, it is the pre-frontal cortex that gives us the ability for complex language and thought. It provides the foundation of great poetry, music, philosophy, and wisdom. In fact, it is the development of the pre-frontal cortex that separates us from the apes and is in some respect what all parents of teenagers yearn for – the final coming together of that system which usually occurs in late teens and early adulthood.
With developments in medical and biological sciences and equipment in just the last couple of decades, researchers are now able to watch the human brain at work. This research shows that we have an entire brain system, called the mirror neuron system, that goes online as soon as we’re born (if not sooner) and continues working throughout the lifespan. It’s this system that causes a baby to smile at a cooing parent, or lovers to share tears of joy or ecstasy, or violence to be met with violence. We are equipped by our nature to connect with each other and to experience, to some limited degree, the emotional world of the persons we’re connected to, whether they’re feeling love, hate, rage, shame or yes, anxiety. When this happens, they feel-felt, we feel-felt, and neither of us feel alone in it.
What does that mean? Well, it means there’s a biological and psychological reason that we need each other. In fact, we need each other so much that our brain’s health actually depends on connecting with each other’s experience almost automatically.
For our development into human societies, our yearning for connection is an ancient and fundamental part of our human experience. It is as important for humans as our need to differentiate what is “different.” But this tension between connection and differentiating creates some complexities in our lives together. We need to feel felt, to not feel alone in the world. Yet we also are driven to preserve our “tribe,” our sense of protection that arises from group closeness.
The key is in understanding the role that differentiation now plays in our society and in our brains. Its signaling is closely linked with a fear response, indicating that we may be in danger. Since it operates at a lower level in the brain, it feels like it has priority when we experience it. Remember that at one time in our human development, it was indeed potentially life-preserving. Our ancestors that thought they saw a lion lived longer lives and were able to reproduce at a higher rate than those who did not detect the lion, even if they were wrong, and it was just a puppy. So this sense of being on-guard is a strong force within us, even though we no longer need it as much in our daily lives.
Nevertheless, this force can still be easily activated, as we can see over the course of our history. Indeed, we stand in an age that is less than one century removed from mass genocide in Europe, less than two generations removed from the same in Asia, and less than one generation removed from the same in Africa. Tribalism and fear of “the other” is a constant threat that has been used by dictators and the elite in societies to consolidate power while destroying “the other.” Sadly,much of human history is the tragic story of the crimes committed when we allowed leaders to manipulate primitive systems of tribalism into hating the other.
But we can do better. We can learn. We can avoid these past mistakes. In this new anxious time, we can make conscious (pre-frontal cortex) choices to use our higher brain functions to cultivate an appreciation for one another and for diversity. Diversity is KEY to our surviving and thriving.
We can promote mutual regard and understanding.
We can try to feel the other person's experience.
We can embrace that which is different from our own experience.
It may not always feel natural at first. But with practice, we can gain more satisfaction, better relationships, improved marriages, and a more successful community.
Here at Rock Springs, we promote the conscious practice of compassion, courage, and curiosity: three elements that promote connection and promote community.
If we seek these higher ideals and develop activities for supporting them, we will find that we no longer feel alone and isolated.
In the end, we may even feel connected and loved.