Calming the survival brain in politics


Australia21 Australia21 Director Dr Lynne ReederDirector Dr Lynne Reeder:

Neuroscience shows political irrationality prevents problem solving.


Advances in neuroscience and psychology are revealing insights into the way our minds and emotions work, meaning that we can better appreciate why we prefer simple answers to complex issues, and why we think that people ‘like us’, are less threatening than those ‘not like us’. These advances also have implications for injecting empathy and compassion into today’s political irrationality.

‘Political irrationality is the greatest social problem humanity faces because it prevents us from solving other problems,’ says Michael Huemer, Professor of Philosophy at University of Colorado. He argues that before problems can be solved, political leaders must take a rational approach, explaining that if our beliefs are only guided by automatic responses – a need to belong, maintaining a particular self-image, or a desire to avoid admitting past mistakes – it would be a pure accident if we were able to form measured views to solve problems.


Calm minds support decision-making

In the 21st century, politicians and policy makers will be better served if they have a greater awareness of the way their thoughts and emotions drive decisions. Neuroscience is validating that when our minds are calm, we cultivate the areas of the brain related to perception, emotion regulation, creativity, and complex thinking.Montage of Australian politicians from The Art of Healing magazine

The way in which our minds and emotions work has significance for political decision-making, in particular for all those dealing with the complexity of today’s global world.

National politics is no longer only concerned with domestic issues, and global politics is challenging how populations with diverse opinions and experiences connect and engage. In our interdependent yet very uncertain world, policy challenges need to encompass an awareness of and sensitivity to the suffering of others. For that awareness to be cultivated, mindful and empathic behaviour must be intentionally included and rewarded in policy and decision-making settings.


Fear-based judgements are damaging

In the context of politics and political debate, how might we get to a calm state where considered responses are more prevalent and where the detrimental effects of fear and negative assumptions are mitigated?

The adoption of mindfulness, compassion and empathy within the political model would support more considered responses, making them more prevalent, which in turn would moderate the damaging effects of fear-based judgements.


Fight or flightArtwork from Calming the Survival Brain in Politics by Dr Lynne Reeder in The Art of Healing reactions impair decision-making

Yet we know ourselves, how easy it is to allow the survival brain to catastrophize any given situation, to jump to conclusions, and to start creating stories based on irrational fears and obsessions which can bear little resemblance to reality. In situations where we are not comfortable or feel threatened, the ‘fight or flight’ reaction is triggered which impairs decision-making.

We shouldn’t underestimate the challenge involved in calming the ‘survival brain’, after all, our brain is the product of 3.5 billion years of evolution, and our survival mind has played a key role in keeping us safe from harm. For example, we need it fully engaged when an out-of-control car is careering towards us.


Evolutionary bias triggers the survival brain

However our challenge in today’s stressful world is that it is ‘turned on’ for too much of the day.

Two goats locking horns

Our potential for irrational fear is great, and requires the difficult and continual work of calming the survival brain.

So a complicating factor in soothing the ‘survival mind’ is its evolutionary bias. Over millions of years our human minds have evolved to make quick assumptions on the basis of better safe than sorry.

Therefore moving away from combative political environments will necessitate learning new ways of suspending our judgements when engaging with those who have had very different lived experiences. Turning off our ‘survival mind’ with mindfulness training, underpinned by empathy and compassion, allows for more nuanced choices.


Brain networks can be retrainedoutline of brain

Neuroscientists such as Professor James Doty, Director of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, have shown that training can harness the brain networks that drive emotions and behaviour to intentionally strengthen positive qualities of the mind such as compassion and empathy.

Engaging with these qualities requires strength. It takes courage to put yourself in the shoes of another, to look into the nature and causes of suffering in ourselves and others, and to do something about it.

Policy makers will benefit from understanding that when they are stressed, the physiological reaction of the ‘survival mind’ shuts down the part of their brain responsible for deep-thinking, reflection, and creativity.

Higher order skills improve decision-making

So how might the capacity to override survival reactions make an impact on the confrontational behaviour evident in the political sphere?

In order to begin imagining such a scenario, higher order skills of empathy and compassion would need to be consciously developed, with studies already showing that training in mindfulness, empathy and compassion can decrease the risk of negative emotion-driven poor decision-making.

Research undertaken in 2014 by Dr Dan Martin and others iDr Lynne Reeder addressing the Board of Australia21n the U.S. highlighted that training programs offering wellbeing interventions woven in with compassion, validate prejudice-reduction perspectives in the participants.


Integration prevents manipulation

As with all aspects of the human mind we need to be aware of the potential downsides. Mindful attentiveness can be a source of deceitful action, by favouring self-interest. For example, advertising and marketing agencies can play on the empathic understanding of customers to sell products.

However, when they are integrated – the competency of empathy, the motivation of compassion, and the skill of mindfulness can overcome the shortfalls that each on their own can deliver. Combined they have a role to play, in not only helping people to better listen to those they don’t agree with, but also in developing less combative approaches to political decision-making.


Dr Lynne Reeder is an Adjunct Research Fellow with the Faculty of Health at Federation University Australia. This article (and some of the artwork) was first published in The Art of Healing Vol 4 ISSUE 57 Dec/Feb 2017.


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