Vision: Can Human Beings Drop Their Divisive, Reactionary Thinking and Move to a Higher Level?

By Ronit Herzfeld, AlterNet
Posted on December 13, 2010, Printed on December 14, 2010

Why does so much of our political and social discourse devolve into extreme positions with little or no ability for each side to hear the other?  Why are we continually reacting to conflict in the same unproductive or destructive ways? Given the multitude of challenges facing us and our planet, it’s time to break this reactive and futile cycle.  As Albert Einstein so eloquently observed, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” The urgency of finding that “new type of thinking” cannot be overstated.

As a psychotherapist and a human rights activist working for over twenty-five years with thousands of people on four continents, I witness these patterns of reactive behavior everywhere; and I have become intimately aware of their underlying causes. Gratefully, I have also seen our great capacity to break through these destructive patterns when provided with the necessary knowledge and tools.  We can move past divisive obstructions when we become mindful of what is blocking us, and step up to the next level of our evolution – awareness.

Recently, neuroscientists have shed more light on our physiological mechanisms and have helped to explain why our conflicts can become so intractable.  Advancements in brain scanning technology have revealed that many of our adult emotions, thoughts and actions arise from neural pathways that were created and deeply ingrained in us when we were young children.

Ninety percent of human-brain growth occurs in the first five years of life.  During this critical developmental period, life experiences determine how the millions of neurons in the human brain connect. These connections form the structure of our brains, which in turn create our minds.  Hence, our early life experiences shape our minds and define our individual beliefs and values — who we are.  While genetics plays a significant role, our experiences are responsible for how the genes are expressed, because our experiences actually shape our brain structure.

As we continue to grow, our tendency is to filter new information and experiences through our initial sets of beliefs and values.  We develop patterns in our brains that determine how we perceive and respond to our world. These patterns are relatively fixed and will tend to stay that way unless and until repeated new experiences restructure the brain, and thereby change the mind. For example, if a child is raised by racist parents, his brain structure becomes wired to think and feel racism.  The child’s view can change, however, if he is actively exposed to tolerance.

By adulthood, our worldview is so fixed that most people don’t even know that there is another way to be.  We become emotionally attached to our points of view, since they represent and order our reality. Our egos may perceive any challenge as life threatening. When in conflict, our defense mechanisms trigger, and negate or deflect opposing points of view in order to maintain our own reality. For example, many dismiss those who hold creationist beliefs as uneducated or irrational, while Creationists, in turn, label Evolutionists as heretics.  Few among either group engage in objective inquiry to understand the other. In fact, our differences are due to the fixed nature of our brains.  This set pattern is the primary source of our divisive conflicts.

To further complicate matters, these unconscious tendencies to feel threatened leave many people open to manipulation by the demagogues of the day.  The results of the recent elections are a perfect example. Driven by irrational fear, millions of citizens were led to vote against their own interests, prompting confused, frustrated and angry reactions from the other side.

Since rational arguments do not assuage fear (because fear trumps our higher reasoning) continuing to get angry and frustrated at people and dismissing them as irrational or stupid does not change the landscape or serve us as a whole.  It only leads to a perpetual reactive pattern, one that does not allow for new creative solutions.

So how do we move forward?

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