Working Notes: Neuroplasticity, “Human Nature,” and the Ecological Imperative

Illuminated HTraditional 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:


Filed under Environmental Ethics, Humanities and Ecology, Nature

9 responses to “Working Notes: Neuroplasticity, “Human Nature,” and the Ecological Imperative

  1. Love this post…

    Yes! Change our “natures”…which I’m in the cultural creation camp with you and UC anthropologist Marshall Sahlins…

    Patient: “Doctor, it hurts when I go like this….”
    Doctor: “Don’t go like that.”

    And yes! The hope (or faith) in ideas as “merde on the wall”. May what sticks be the fruit of our best digestion! (I think presently we’re suffering from a terrible bug…)

  2. cskolnik

    Yes but (and this is not a big but) how? How can we change the trajectory of consumer capitalism and its cultural/media monopoly? I’ve thought the new media is a possible route, since it allows “not-affiliated” individuals to shape culture, but is it enough, and is it really outside of main stream media/culture?

  3. I’m reminded of a famous statement by Paul Ricoeur: “Consciousness is always late.” We’re only now becoming aware (scientifically) of consciousness as plastic. Plus material conditions and other objects shape consciousness in ways we don’t control. And to this the nonlinearity of change, and consciousness is always REALLY late! Isn’t this a series of corners we can never see around?

  4. MajMaverik

    You move almost seamlessly from the individual psyche to whole-numerical societal memes – very important & thought-provoking ideas. I’d like to say two things. One intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I want to say is this : When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: What are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you wish to believe, or what you think could have beneficent social effects if it were believed; but look only and solely at what are the facts. The value behind Biology is truth, and the verity associated with it is humility. The value behind human psychology is empathy, and the verity holding it up is patience. The value behind society is reality, and the verity behind it is justice. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

    The moral thing I should wish to say to you is very simple; I should say: “Love is wise — Hatred is foolish.” In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other – evolutionary imperatives are the cloak for intolerance, as in the Middle East. We have to learn to put up with the fact, that some people say things we don’t like, live the way we do not like, value the things we do not like. We can only live together harmoniously with the least damage to individual neuroplasticity by bullets or bombs in that way. But if we are to live together, and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance – to the environment, also – which is absolutely vital, to the continuation of human life on this planet.

  5. cskolnik

    Great comment. Thank you so much.

  6. cskolnik

    Yes. I wonder what cultural myths have made people believe that intractability is in their self-interest?

    • Good question. Ideas like “dogged determinism”, “courage and conviction in the face of adversity” and so on may be conflated with intractability…It seems the former should have some valuable place in our lives, but discerning what place and how they’re applied is increasingly unclear. As Morton said at Notre Dame last weekend, we find ourselves increasingly difficult to locate—although he talked about “weird essentialism”, there is no fixed place from which we can get a fix on things: we’re always slipping along on a mobius strip. I have no idea what it would take for that clear reckoning to percolate up into ordinary discourse.

      I think understanding the intransigent Republicans as portrayed in the Daily Show clip is useful in some way: as people who have a very high opinion of themselves, “and are mystified why others don’t see them that way.” That is, to understand them as hostage-takers, but I’m not sure where things go from there…

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