Think for a moment about some of the worst social ills. Genocide, Organized Crime, Human Trafficking, Gun Violence, Sexual Violence, Poverty. Of them all, which is most egregious? Which most incites outrage? Why do these things exist? Why do they prevail? Can they be stopped? Ended? Altered?
We cannot ever know the answers to these questions. We can, however, consider what it is about human nature, social relationships, and prevailing beliefs which serve as kindling for the flames of injustice. Increased awareness about the connections between these things could be empowering, could render progress, in time.
Let’s begin with neurology. The human brain is composed of different segments that control separate functions affecting human behavior. Chemically speaking, the brain produces various neurotransmitters, which send messages between all the different parts of the brain, which again impact behavior. When a brain has more or less of a particular neurotransmitter, this impacts the physical functions of the person it indwells. We do not have the liberty to select our brains before birth. Thus, the brain chemistry we inherit positions us for success or adversity before we breathe our first breath of oxygen. With that said, we are not fated to a particular life just because of our inherited brain chemistry.
Environmental factors also impact human behavior. Socio-economic status, as well as familial functionality weave a tapestry of experience in and around those neurological threads to mold and shape social interactions, academic performance, and emotional reactions. By extension, ideology–or the lens through which we perceive life and experience in the world–affixes itself to inherited neurology, inextricably, which serves to either reward or punish behaviors and proclivities that arise naturally as a result of biochemistry.
Thus, every one of us is born with neurological propensities within socio-economic systems of advantage or disadvantage, which grant us filters through which we perceive our experience. Our bodies are inclined to act and react to life in unique ways. Our communities and belief systems either shame us for our innate propensities or praise us for our natural capacity to conform. We adapt our responses, either through repression or more aggressive and overt defense mechanisms when we are unable to meet social standards.
If, as collective humanity, we could consider the neurological, environmental, and ideological components of our existence, we might be able to address social and political issues with grace, mercy, and far less contention. Alas, this is a eutopic ideal. Nevertheless, I do think that a broadening consciousness can and will serve to improve conditions on earth over time. I would argue that the work of environmental advocate Greta Thunberg is an example of how awareness and expanding consciousness can affect change over time. This girl single handedly began an awareness campaign that has brought global attention to the climate crisis. Because of her aggressive insistence on climate education, people are making conscious lifestyle changes, and politicians are discussing the need for legislation to curb the negative impact of carbon emissions on earth. For generations, communities have been numb to the impact of industrialization on the environment. This young woman, through persistence, through research, and through protest, has picked away the scab, and millions of people are feeling the ache of environmental pillage.
This is the kind of advocacy needed for so many other facets of the human experience. As a parent of a child with ADHD, as a person who has discovered in adulthood my own neurodiversity, I have a growing awareness of the neurological component of human behavior. With this awareness comes a shift in perspective. If the formula for behavior = neurology + environment + ideology, then, we can intervene and alter behavior by shifting the variables. I cannot control my neurology. I cannot control my impulsivity. I grew up in an environment that condemned impulsivity and I believed, as a result, that I could learn to control that part of myself, if only I could practice self restraint. What I now know is that my impulsivity is directly related to the release of dopamine in my brain. While neuronormative individuals have brains that hold onto dopamine when it is created, I have a brain that sends off that dopamine before I am able to experience the feel good effects of it. As a result, I do impulsive things to generate dopamine more often becuase my brain has a deficit. This is not my fault. This knowledge has given me grace for myself. I now know where my impulsivity comes from, and I know I cannot do anything to make it go away. It will always be there. However, I truly care about the way in which my neurobiology impacts my relationships, so I am seeking ways to regulate these impulses. The first strategy is this very awareness. I know I have a tendency to do impulsive things–and so before I am faced with a situation in which I might customarily do something impulsive, I can prepare myself with interventions to mitigate my natural tendencies. I can choose to alter my environment to help me manage my behavior. Yet I could never do this if I continued to operate under the belief that I can control this aspect of myself–that prayer and repression is the cure.
This same equation can and should be applied to other social issues. Gun violence = aggressive and impulsive neurology + socio-economic conditions + a system of beliefs that condones the use of guns to solve problems. Sexual violence = perverse inclinations/addiction + trauma/abuse, family dynamics/socio economic conditions + misogynistic ideology that promotes feelings of entitlement.
It is my opinion that if we address the belief systems of social communities, we can improve environmental conditions and provide intervention for neurological propensities which perpetuate criminal and violent behavior. This is no small task. Nevertheless, it can be done. With proper education and awareness, people can learn to manage neurological propensities. People can learn to regulate their deficiencies. First, we must acknowledge the natural and neurobiological components of human behavior. We must acknowledge inherited tendencies, and from this place of awareness, we can educate ourselves, we can alter our environments, and we can discard the cracked filters through which we view the world for a more dynamic perspective, which offers grace for ourselves and mercy for others, as we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3: 23, NIV Bible).