The Supreme Court’s soon-to-be-handed-down ruling on the health-care law serves as a moment to pay attention to relationships — and evolution.
Hear me out.
During the Supreme Court arguments over the health-care law, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli mentioned the “social norms to which we’ve obligated ourselves so that people get health care” – for example, that hospitals can’t turn away someone requiring emergency services simply because they lack insurance.
Justice Antonin Scalia replied, “Well, don’t obligate yourself to that.”
I can say without reservation that that’s a sure recipe for this nation to lose its humanity, and to find itself on the bottom of the heap.
For more than a decade my psychology practice has been located within blocks of Capitol Hill and the White House. I’ve been practicing psychotherapy for more than twenty years, and do so with the additional expertise of neuropsychology – the brain-behavior relationship
I’ve seen rather a lot of deeply unhappy people who’ve gotten where they are via the “take care of #1” mindset.
It. Just. Doesn’t. Work.
They believe the world is still about survival of the fittest – and by fittest, they mean the most power and the most money. The one that’s holding the whip.
And what a surprise: They’re angry, and cynical. They have miserable inner lives, fragile defenses, and no true friends, often just superficial bonds with others who share their cynicism and entitlement. They’re multiply-divorced, estranged, in dead relationships or relationships rife with betrayals.
I want more than that for them, and I want more than that for our communities and our nation.
To get there, we need to have brains that are more capable of evolved relationships — structurally more integrated, not less, with greater resilience, and the ability to cooperate rather than annihilate.
As to what that means, and what that would look like, I offer three brain-and-behavior bits of science for consideration:
• First: In a 2011 study published in Current Biology, researchers from University College London presented evidence that “greater liberalism was associated with increased grey matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala.”
Your anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a player in the interface between the cortical parts (the upper, sort of “thinking” parts of your brain) and the subcortical parts (your lower, more “raw-feeling” brain parts, like your amygdala, whose main job is to make immediate assessments of safety or danger and to sound the “fight-or-flight” alarm. If it runs the show, fear and rage are the main players.
Having a plumper and more active ACC means you’re integrating your brain’s various areas and functions better, applying reason in collaboration with your emotions.
• Next, consider the work that Richard Davidson, PhD’s group has done on the ratio of left-to-right prefrontal activity. All of us, at rest, have a sort of baseline ratio between the activity in the two sides of our prefrontal cortex (the area that, if push comes to shove, could be said to be the “CEO” of the brain). If you tend to have more activity on the right, Davidson and colleagues found, you’re more likely to end up in the grips of negative emotions and stay there longer; you’re also more likely to engage in a “protective-defensive” withdrawal or avoidance stance in life.
Those with more are more left-active prefrontal areas tend to have more positive emotions—and they recover from negative experiences much more quickly (i.e., greater resilience). They’re also more responsive to positive stimuli, and to be open to or more likely to approach novel and potentially rewarding stimuli or experiences.
• Third, consider the extensive evidence pointed out by Frans de Waal, PhD that there’s a long line of animals evolutionarily “below” us on the family tree that live in cooperation, within connected, interdependent communities. They take care of the injured or weak, and they show reciprocity in their daily lives. They’ll even put themselves in danger in order to protect one another.
Part of our evolutionary progress is that we actually do possess brains that have more than “a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutal nature.” Rather, our brains actually have the wiring to operate in service to relationships and the greater good, and not just “I, me, mine.”
The challenge in the rapid growth of our nation and our global community is for our brains to catch up with just how large our group of kin actually is. Another piece of this challenge is for those in positions of influence to stop cultivating fear and threat as a means to get people to huddle into “us versus them” thinking. When our fear circuitry gets activated, we regress, both developmentally and evolutionarily, and mutually beneficial cooperation goes out the window.
Did Justice Scalia mean to endorse the notion of Social Darwinism – which is, by what we know about the brain, actually a step backward in human evolution? Instead, I hope that the highest court in our nation will find that we must move toward healthier relationships within our nation, beyond a primitive kill-or-be-killed state – or, in this case, beyond a live-and-let-die nation.
And even if the Justices do take that evolutionary step backwards, I hope you’ll consider doing your part to keep moving things in a more evolved – and empathic – direction.
Marsha Lucas, PhD is a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist in Washington DC, and author of Rewire Your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness (Hay House, 2012). To learn more, visit http://RewireYourBrainForLove.com.
© 2012 Marsha Lucas. All Rights Reserved.