Traditional empirical inquiries into the human psyche have generally assumed that if a critical mass of human beings have the same psychological characteristics then these features represent essential qualities of human beings—human nature. This assumption has abided through the emergence of neuroscience, and the study of typical neurological functions and responses.
However neuroscience has also discovered the fact of neuroplasticity. While scientist once assumed that the adult brain was set, they now know that it is subject to change and responsive to environmental influences. If the human mind is responsive to environmental influences, and if those influences are ubiquitous but different for different cultures, then we may have the conditions for a monumental error. What may seem to be essentially true for all human beings at all times, may only be a reflection of a dominant culture and/or its cultural perspective. Thus there may be very little “human nature” that is not shaped by culture. The selfishness and thoughtlessness characteristic of consumer-capitalism, for example, may be largely or even strictly cultural. Comparative studies of different cultures over time and space could show this to be true—they may already have.
If this is the case, is it possible to shape the human mind and brain—“human nature”—en masse through cultural means? This has certainly been accomplished in pernicious ways by 20th century dictatorships, is this also the case in consumerist-media dominated democracies? How can a democracy change its course under such circumstances?
My recent research into imagining the future in the context of urban planning and ecological restoration suggests that Westerners are indeed self-absorbed and short-sighted with regard to the environment. The research was supported by hard psychological and neuroscientific data. Thus, I have argued that environmentalists should appeal to these given values instead of trying to remake the general public in their own image.
Last night, however, after working for days on an unrelated neuroscience article, I realized that neuroplasticity calls the idea of “human nature” into question. “Human nature” may be only what it is at this point in time, and with the current speed of cultural change, it may be subject to swift and radical alteration. If environmental consciousness is not in our “nature,” perhaps we should change our “nature.”
P.S. EC Co-Editor, Liam Heneghan proposed that plasticity (the ability to change) may be more or less “essential.” I agree that change may be a constant, with the caveat that rate of change changes (per a recent discussion with Reuven Feuerstein).
P.P.S. Last night I had a dream about the following idea of exponential error. I dreamt that I was reading a neurological formula in one of William James’s standard psychology texts. (I have read them, though they are so comprehensive I don’t recall this particular detail.) The formula was for exponential errors in the psyche. It showed how a small error related to a popular topic could replicate in the human mind, through the non-linear mechanics of association, and, through cultural means, in a human population. (I might also have seen the idea in Korzybski, a highly eccentric polymath, trending toward monomania, who developed an elaborate thesis of “general semantics.”) Perhaps in our current political and cultural climate, we can hold onto hope that what is true for errors, if this indeed be true, is also be true for new scientific knowledge and humanistic insights related to our all to obvious and all too often ignored ecological imperatives.
Image by Kathryn Finter: http://illuminations.ca/letter-H.html