The second area of astonishing discoveries is in the plasticity of the brain. We talk of “hardwiring” (computers have generated many misleading metaphors for the brain) but in fact, the brain can be changed. Parts of the brain can learn entirely new tricks. Neural pathways are not fixed, and even much of the damage done by deprivation in childhood can be repaired with the right circumstances of example, support and determination. We can shape our own brains to create new habits that we might have thought we were not capable of – it’s a long, hard process but it is possible.
This all may seem remote from politics, but it’s not. Jon Cruddas has a habit of startling audiences by arguing that the regeneration of the left requires a convincing new account of what it is to be human. Are human beings self-interested creatures or are they collaborative? The right’s argument for market capitalism is rooted in the former but the research on the social brain supports the latter. Put crudely, we are social creatures with an inbuilt tendency to co-operate and seek out each other’s approval and that is probably more important in determining day-to-day behaviours than narrowly conceived self-interest.
In a thought-provoking pamphlet on the implications for politics to be published early next month, Matt Grist, who runs the RSA’s Social Brain project, concludes that both the right and the left have lessons to learn. The rightwing emphasis on the individual’s capacity to triumph over their environment through willpower is undermined by the research which shows how childhood deprivation leaves such scarring on the brain. While the challenge to the left is to recognise that the myopic tendencies of the brain to privilege the short term has been held in check by institutions and traditions which can safeguard longer-term interests. Perhaps that requires greater understanding on the left of how such institutions operate and a revision of assumptions about why they restrict individual autonomy.