Frontier Science and Human Nature
Scientific facts are true…until they’re not. Just one example will make my point. In the mid-70s when I was in graduate school studying cognition, how our brain is formed and actually works, the prevailing ‘scientific truth’ was that our brain tissue and all the neurological connections that make it work have been laid down by the time we are 5 or 6 years of age. From that point on, we have to work with what we’ve got. Today we know that ‘truth’ is only a partial truth. With the advent of more advanced technology, like MRIs, that allow us to study brain function real-time and over an extended period of time, we have solid scientific evidence that our brain is far more pliable than we ever thought. With focused effort, new neural pathways are formed even at the later stages of our life. In fact, something as basic as our perception–how we actually see the world–is a learned skill, determined by our culture. With focused effort, perception can also be modified. These new insights are redefining our understanding of human nature, and their implications are profound. Most importantly, they make me hopeful about where we’re headed as human beings. Moving beyond where we are today is not impossible, we don’t have to be stuck.
Lynne McTaggart and The Bond
These are just some of the scientific facts that award winning author, journalist and thought leader Lynne McTaggart has pulled together in her just released book, The Bond: Connecting through the Space Between Us. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of a live conversation with Lynne on my weekly online radio program, Leadership Every Day. We talked about the implications of what all this new revelations from frontier scientists–those brave men and woman with the vision, passion and courage to pursue a unanswered scientific question–means for us all.
I can’t begin to do justice to the book or our conversation here, but what I really appreciate is that Lynne provides us with ways to apply this new science. She shows how incorporating practices suggested by new scientific discoveries can foster more holistic thinking, more cooperative relationships and more unified neighborhoods. For instance:
- Cultivating a love of flea markets, whodunits or other practices that stimulate curiosity turns on the “seeking” mechanism of the brain, which helps us to discover the hidden connections between things and overcomes latent inhibition, our tendency to screen out detail.
- The way in which we see the world is not inherent but a learned skill. Although our modern culture, so obsessed with individual things, has taught us to see in a piecemeal and highly focused way, all of us have the capacity to recover our capacity to see the subtlety of the relationships that make up our world.
- Certain simple activities that cause mirror patterns in the brains of each party foster deeper relationships between individuals.
- People who fire together wire together; whenever a group works together for a common goal, the brains of all parties begin to get entrained — strengthening the bond within the group.
- Shared activity also creates a ramped-up endorphin release in us, raising pain thresholds, improving individual efforts and ultimately raising our game.
- A new way of speaking and listening, inspired by quantum physics, can overcome polarization, helping the staunchest of enemies to become close friends — as it did among pro-life and pro-choice activists.
- A single act of kindness — change left in a Coke machine for the next person, in one instance — can set off an enormous wave of generosity throughout an entire community — up to three degrees of separation along the social network.
- Fairness is a stronger phenomenon than unfairness; all it requires is a small group of individuals committed to strong reciprocity to “invade” a population of self-interested individuals and create a fairer society.
Implications for Leaders
Lynne has done a terrific job synthesizing a great deal of information into a coherent whole, with a resounding conclusion. All human beings–irrespective of various differentiating characteristics such as ethnicity, age, sex, socioeconomic status–are hard-wired to collaborate, treat each other fairly and derive great satisfaction of being part of something greater than ourselves. In fact, in the long run, the strategy: ‘survival of the fittest’ is not even a winning strategy. (As Mahatma Gandhi so eloquently stated more than eighty years ago: ‘An eye for an eye, and soon the whole world is blind.’ Hardly the eyesight needed to find new solutions or new ideas.)
We now have concrete evidence that many of our most strongly held beliefs about human nature need to be modified. Yes we like to compete… but that is only part of the story. We also like to contribute to something worthwhile and can learn to enjoy people quite different from ourselves. By finding ways to create deep connection with one another we can move beyond ‘common ground’ or ‘shared interests’ into entirely new territory where new creative answers to old problems lie. Lynne stated it succinctly the end of our hour-long conversation: “If we can embrace the alternative impulse (cooperation and sharing, rather than always competing), many of our intractable problems become solvable.”
I hope you will take the time to get to know the book’s content. A good starting place is my interview with her. To listen, click on the link’s show: Leadership Every Day.
Meanwhile, keep the faith, you can be sure I am.