Is Neurobiology the Answer?

The_Brain's_SQL_Business_IntelligenceThe past 10-15 years has been an incredible time for those of us who have followed the developments in neurobiology. What we now know about the brain and its role in human development and all aspects of human life is astounding. In my day to day life as a Social Worker I work with people who have experienced trauma in their childhood and the advances in neurobiology have had huge impacts on this area and certainly on my work with clients. In fact it is through these insights from neurobiology that many of the strategies I use that were previously based mostly on intuition now have an evidence base.

In many ways these advances seem liberating to me, that we finally have some tangible ideas about why we might behaviour as we do and the impacts of our experiences, especially our early life experiences, on our later behaviours and choices. This truly is amazing stuff. 

So why do I raise it here? Well there are a couple of things that I think are relevant for discussion when it comes to neurobiology and broader issues about how we might create a more peaceful and equitable world. Firstly, I think that some of the insights from neurobiology may well be useful in helping us understand how change might be created and how it is inhibited – but I’ll come back to that in a subsequent post. The issue I want to raise here is basically a cautionary note about how we use the insights being generated through neurobiology.

I do think that many, many questions can be answered by neurobiology. But I also know that it is important that we ask the right questions, with the right intention. 

I have often been concerned that many of our approaches to understanding human behaviour and change do not adequately take into account the broader context of the societies that we live in. Our tendency to individualise issues that are, at least in substantial part, inherently social has caused considerable suffering to many people unnecessarily. And to a large degree we know that now, and we are far better placed to look for the ways in which we may tend to see individuals outside of their social context when we come to understand their behaviours. 

In a funny sort of way, biological determinism, and to a lesser extent, sociobiology were both precursors to neurobiology. The key notion here is that human behaviour is largely a feature of our biology, particularly our genetic makeup, rather than the impact of our environment. There are famous (infamous) accounts of experiments measuring the brains of anglo-saxon males and comparing them to both women and people of African descent and concluding that the differences in measurement justified an inherent inequality and therefore supported the superiority of anglo-saxon men and related oppressive practices. Thankfully those days are long gone – and I don’t want to take this point too far because it’s not my intention to cast any doubt on neurobiologists who I believe to be wonderful scientists doing amazing work. However the legacy of the way in which science can be manipulated to justify political and ideological practices of oppression, is fresh in the minds of many of us, and it is my hope that we will ensure that this does not happen again. 

So this is my cautionary message in relation to neurobiology. It is critically important that we do not individualise the advances and discoveries that we are making about human beings through the work being achieved in neurobiology. We do know without a doubt the essential requirements for healthy child development, we know what our little brains need and why it is important. We also know that many, many children do not get these things in their families and their early environments. As we come to understand what we need to do about this to create some change, it is desperately important that we do not see these children and these parents and these communities outside the larger social context in which we all live. 

Maybe I truly am a child of the Enlightenment era because I do believe that human beings are fundamentally good and decent and that we are all doing the best we can in often very difficult circumstances, both externally and internally. So let’s use this incredible knowledge that are are gaining to educate and support all of us -parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, teachers, neighbours, counsellors, doctors, bus drives, about how we can all work at being even more responsible for raising healthy children in our society and understanding with compassion when this does not occur. 

Insights from neurobiology do not provide an excuse for certain behaviours, nor do they provide a basis for blame, judgement and comparison. What they do provide is an understanding about why things might be as they are and what we can do to both prevent and change these things.