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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Building the Social Animal: Society, Politics and the Mental Health Solution

In raising mental health (phrased another way, cognitive function) as a top social priority, White hits the nail squarely on the head.  As I’ll get to later, I think a proper understanding of what “mental health” actually means and what role cognitive function plays in social dynamics will enable us to bridge a number of social inequity barriers and inefficiency gaps, including the challenges facing First Nations.  Ironically enough, as economic growth is seen as the biggest factor in determining social and individual success, I believe that our challenge and our promise are both a reflection of neurological innovation.

There's a general rule that application always lags behind innovation; you get a new computer model before you've mastered how to use the last one, then there's a mobile device, etc.  When it comes to practical usage of what’s new, we're always playing catch-up (“you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is simply a colloquial description of the cons of myelination).  This is as true in biology as it is in technology, even moreso in a social context.  The fine-motor capacity of our bodies lags behind the demands put on it; we simply aren’t designed for long stints of sitting at desks or chronic keyboard use, yet that’s what society demands of us.

We have only just begun to fathom the depth of what this principle means to society and individual biology.  One quick example – you don't find ulcers in zebras because zebras don’t face chronic stress; they face biochemical stress in short stints, after which they are either dead or free to live another day.  Humans, on the other hand, are constantly hitting the stress button; in gridlock, in meeting work deadlines, in facing the schoolyard bully or the micro-managing boss, in domestic challenges, etc.  The closest equivalent to the level of chronic stress our species faces would be small, skittish creatures that exist in a constant state of reactive-readiness to respond to predation.  These aren't species that tend to live very long lives.

Thanks to the collective benefits of society (healthcare and security in place of aggressiveness/defensiveness), humans are living increasingly long lives and being exposed to an ever-increasing amount of stressors.  These come in both physical (keyboards, cramped subways, isolation through living in single-family dwellings, long work days spent sitting, shifts that interfere with biological rhythms of sleep and eating, etc.) and less apparent but no less impactful, psychological (email flow, traffic jams, cubicle farms, micro-management, stigma) forms.

In the grandest of ironies, much of the issues that plague society, ranging from physical diseases like asthma, repetitive stress injury and cancers are caused or exacerbated by the conditions of society.  As in all things, the benefits of social living are offset by its negative consequences.  While our bodies are designed for certain degrees of social functioning – hands designed for tool use, parts of our brain built for tool design, throats designed for speech and minds capable of fabricating language), the innovations of society are always a couple steps ahead of our biological, neurological capacity to adapt.

Where this conflict (the growth and well-being of society vs the growth and well-being of the individual) stems from is neuro-biology.  The reason we are social creatures at all is due to the development of the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal, or “neo” cortex is the part of our brain responsible for, among other things, planning and executive function.  The reason that we have more individualized interests is due to our reactive, limbic mind that encourages us to go for instant gratification regardless of longer-term consequence.

I cannot over-emphasize how pervasive this simple biological reality is in our daily lives, or the general functioning of society.  Even political, ideological differences seem to be social manifestations of these two basic drives – individual interest vs. collective interest, or biological evolution vs social evolution.

Think about it - the neo-cortex is the root of executive functioning (central coordination) and pro-social behaviour (the collective benefit of the whole).  Does that not sound like the basic premise of the ideological Left?  The left wants a solid social safety net managed by a strong, central government that inevitably bleeds away from individual (provincial, municipal, agency, individual) independence.  It’s growth through collaboration.

On the other hand, the limbic system is all about individual strength and the ability to react required when there is no social safety net - does that not sound like the decentralized, individual strength and independence that forms the basis of Right-Wing thought?  The Right is all about individual success stemming from competition.

We are social creatures – the interconnectivity of humanity is such that, thrown out into the wild, most people would be unable to survive independently (and note the correlation between support for individualism and independence and rural living vs. support for specialization and social opportunity in urban environments).  Yet, the pressures of fully-integrated social living are more than we can handle; individually, we suffer from an increasing series of physical and psychologically-related stress factors and socially, we face systematic inequity. 

What happens in society is the same thing that happens when the body faces any stress, be it extreme temperatures or the threat of physical danger; we ramp up the appropriate internal system, taking energy away from others to do so. In society, the greater the duress we face, the greater the internal inequity we face.  You can see it happening now, right here in Canada – the polarization of our politics and the disappearance of the middle class are an exact parallel to physiological responses to stress, with “trouble lapping at our shores” standing in for a hungry lion.  The “cold war” was aptly names for reasons we didn’t fully understand at the time.

When I look at this whole process from the viewpoint of evolution, it’s fascinating – watching the disparate elements of humanity become increasingly integrated is like watching how complex organs like an eye or complex internal systems like the respiratory system developed in real-time.  In fits and spurts, we are building a social ecology, an organism that is greater than the sum of its parts.

At the same time, the practical reality is that the process is subjecting us to micro and macro stresses that are not conducive to quality-of-life.   On the individual level, we have depression, anxiety, road rage and the whole suite of repetitive stress injuries.  On the macro level, we have the problems facing First Nation communities and the increasing likelihood of war with Iran, the isolation of North Korea or the return of fascism in Europe.

Where we are is where we are – the human evolutionary trend is leading towards increased socialization and inter-dependence.  Our evolving consciousness of this fact is only going to speed up the process.  At the same time, we simply aren’t ready to be wholly integrated as a society; we need individual capacity to succeed at both the psychological and physical level.  So, then – what do we do?

As in all things in life, the solution is to be found not in the political left or in the political right, but through the balance of each (which is probably why duality and balance has been such a consistent theme in societies the world over, my favourite example being Lao-tzu’s Tao-te-Ching).  We need both the left AND the right – the two inform each other and, in so doing, eventually arise at the compromises that find the balance between the needs of the one and the needs of the many.

Which brings us back to why a better understanding of mental health is necessary for a properly functioning society.  Just as understanding the why behind a phobia or a craving makes them easier to manage, understanding the cognitive motivation behind everything we do will enable us to do it better.

Which is also why there’s a growing trend towards both social collaboration and a focus on mental health; we need both.  Consciously, we can get there faster, more efficiently.  Having spoken to politicians, social and business leaders representing multiple facets of society, I can say with confidence that the majority of our leaders already have the right intent – all they need to do is follow-through.

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