The Black and White of Grey Matter
Put yourself in a position of power. The kind of power – wealth, political or religious office or public adoration, that gives you influence over very many people. For most of us it is difficult to make the imaginative leap to do this, so distant is the prospect. A crude analogy might be to imagine you are playing poker against a table of players and you have in front of you an inexhaustible mountain of chips; or you are about to play a game of chess against an opponent who has one king and only pawns on his side of the board while you also have one king and the rest are queens. It can be a very pleasing sensation, a kind of blessed spaciousness – having this expansiveness to maneuver, to obliterate any opposition, and to offer your largess in whichever way that humours you.
How will you behave? Will you share your power or protect it at any cost? Will you relate to those around you as equals only less fortunate as you at this particular moment in time or see yourself as somehow special and deserving and others as weaklings? Will you use your power to inspire or oppress? It appears from recent scientific research that this will partly be decided by the structure of your brain!
Neuroscience research is discovering that people with right and left leaning political affiliations have different brains! Neuroimaging has found that ‘greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern’. It seems patently obvious that ‘Conservatives’ are neurologically less capable of assimilating change or accommodating diversity. Now it seems that this is because their brains are structured to recognize and react to threat, rather than to initiate empathetic response. If further evidence is needed look how Republicans consider a Democratic government as much a threat to America as its foreign enemies and will go to any length to unseat them from power; and how Cameron’s government lead with a natural arrogance and unashamed abuse of protocol or mandate in order to feed our common resources piece by piece to their plutocratic backers.
Biological determinism is a traditionally right wing response to justify its attitude to immigration and to social problems and it would be a justice poetic in the extreme if they were able to apply it to themselves so that those who were missing the necessary gray matter to deal with ambivalence and contrasting views should be disqualified from positions of power in democratic society – because obviously these brains are a hardware incompatible with the software of true democracy. Luckily, there is more and more evidence for neural plasticity, so all is not lost. Nurture can rewire the brain if society lets it. And this is the crunch.
Evolution teaches us that biology shapes destiny, and more than any other species humans have developed a sophisticated and strange feedback loop called self-consciousness (a theatre in the mind) which can try things out in an imaginary space before committing to action. In the Theatre of the Oppressed, instead of this feedback loop being a private affair, we can expand and externalize the loop to a group of people – maximizing the learning potential and if conducted within an ethical dimension, hotthousing evolution in a way that can bring about a society with far more equality, justice and peace than the one we have currently. It is the capacity for theatre which allows us to simulate several possible scenarios and choose the most auspicious. When we do this alone, the auspiciousness is individualistic, when we do it as a group it is not only communitarian but, I hypothesize, stimulates the anterior cingulate generating more mirror neurons and creating a brain thet is more likely to ensure the future of the human species.
But counter to this movement is the entrenched locus of world control that demonstrates almost unanimously a behaviour moderated more by their reptilian brain – a hair trigger amygdala. It is this brain model throughout history that has wrestled power from those who truly care about others and who have continuously failed to react to the threat from others because their nature is to accommodate, negotiate differences and with hopeless optimism, compromise their ideals for the greater good. David Icke is right in one way – the reptiles have taken over the world!
We are therefore confronted with a dilemma which is not new and has been faced with most grace in the last century by Gandhi, Mandela and Luther King. Like Penrose Stairs the regressive force of the right seem truly insurmountable and our memories are too short to remember we have been this way before many many times. The liberal optimism that, despite everything, we are making progress is a symptom of this forgetfulness and a sop to our conscience. Democracy, women’s rights, free speech, workers rights, universal free health care and education are diminishing in front of our eyes in the supposedly most civilized societies.
We need to start asking what are the specialized adaptive properties that advantages the left wing brain over the right wing brain? I’m not talking here about more sensitivity to others and the environment, more caring, more networking capacity, more intelligent information processing. These factors are harnessed and manipulated so readily by the ‘reptile brain’ whom we try to integrate into our society and end up creating the ‘feeling tone’ of threat and insecurity that necessitates their rule. I’m talking about theatre – it is the natural domain of neural plasticity and left brain dynamics. We need to appropriate the theatre of operations and expose the comedy and tragedy of right brain thinking on a massive scale, not in some academic way, not on some fringe but with an army of artists and activists leading a revolution of the imagination. We have the tools, now we just need to cut the strings to our amygdala which reptilian society uses to control us and start rewiring society in accordance with the pluralistic, equanimous and empathetic properties of the evolved brain.