by D.C. McGuire
Given our long track record for conveniently looking the other way and letting sticky issues slide as long as possible, this has been a surprising and hopeful time for many Americans. As humans, our tipping point for new thinking and behavior usually occurs with a kick in the pants in the form of some unbearable stressor or tragedy that makes continued inaction impossible. So what happened this time?
Think back to the decades of data that piled up about the deadly threats of tobacco products, and the dangers of driving without seat belts before we finally took meaningful measures to regulate both threats to our well-being. Millions of lives later we passed laws and have come to share a consensus of thinking and behavior. By now, the majority of us have re-wired out brains so that we unconsciously buckle-up, and universally understand smoking to be a source of compromised health, even early death.
As it turns out, neuroscience has confirmed that all a brain owner brain needs to know in order to make personal and societal improvements, is extremely simple. No degree in neuroscience required. It all comes down to the fact that the thoughts, emotions and behaviors we spend the most time hearing, thinking and acting out, become the basis of our beliefs and world views.
More astounding, is that brain scans show how any experiences repeated often enough literally change the physical structures of our brains, along with the way they work. Recent discoveries in neuroscience explain that we’re not so much about “human nature” as we are a matter of “human habit”. Whatever we think and do repetitively writes the operating instructions for our brains, and lives. Period.
Repetitious reverence expressed by friends and family for the Confederate flag can build brain wiring that transforms a piece of cloth into a sacred symbol. Repetitious, disparaging comments about homosexuals can translate opinions on gay marriage into an unquestionable sin. Both, however, are more a matter of repetitive thinking than a consequence of fact. With enough practice, either brain could be wired differently.
154 years, and most recently, 9 lives, and 5 black churches later, America is re-wiring its “national brain”. The shootings in Charleston became our national trauma, and the tipping point for change. Finally, our old “human habit” is being replaced by a new consensus of thinking and behavior. The new habit? Hopefully, with continued focus and repetition, American’s brains are being permanently re-wiring for more inclusive respect, and empathy.
In a June, 2015 CNN poll, 63% of respondents (including 64% of .Evangelical Millennials) said they believe same-sex couples have a constitutional freedom to marry. David Michener’s appeal heard before the Supreme Court was the tipping point arising out of a long history of emotional and physical persecution for 1.6 million gay Americans. The new habit? Hopefully, for this supermajority, it adds up to brains re-wiring with expanded respect, and empathy for everyone.
Previous mindsets about race and gender discrimination may not disappear quickly or entirely. Still, because science shows us that our beliefs and behaviors evolve from habit, we have the awesome opportunity, responsibility, and power to re-train our brains for a healthier, happier, more secure future. It’s free. It’s easy. It’s just a matter of choice in this moment, and this moment, and this moment, and . . .
What’s next? Neuroscience confirms that we have the mental capacity to handle complicated issues more rapidly and with much less pain than could have ever been imagined in the past. It’s both hopeful and realistic to contemplate how we could head off the inevitable stress and trauma of environmental deterioration, un-managed climate change, dwindling supplies of water, clean air, and natural resources, all exacerbated by a ballooning population, with respectful, empathetic initiatives and policies, if that’s what we choose to do.