Education, Neoliberal Culture, and the Brain

It’s unarguable that human nature reveals a continuum of behaviors ranging from the most wretched to the sublime, at times bordering on the saintly. At a minimum, this means acknowledging, in the words of Amin Maalouf that “There is a Mr. Hyde inside each of us. What we have to do is prevent the conditions that will bring the monster forth.”

At the righteous end of the spectrum is our propensity for empathy, a trait deeply rooted in our primate heritage. Empathy — putting oneself in another’s emotional and cognitive shoes and then acting appropriately — is now an incandescently hot topic, virtually a cottage industry of books, articles, and YouTube videos.

Whereas the evolutionary process has given rise to a hard-wired neural system that equips us to connect with one another, many experts believe
that our empathically-impaired society needs nothing less than an “empathy epidemic.” Among the factors frequently cited as interfering with constructing an empathic culture we find everything from parenting, education, and economic inequality to early childhood programs, meaningful social connections, and misplaced emphasis on achieving social status.

Dr. Marco Iacaboni, one of the world’s recognized authorities on the neuroscience of empathy, argues that the discovery of mirror neurons, the
neurons responsible for empathy, is “so radical that we should be talking about a revolution, the mirror neuron revolution.” Why? Because of the profound implications for how we think about both individuals and the future of our endangered planet. These neuroscience findings can be the foundation for a fortuitous marriage between science and secular morality but, as Prof. Iacoboni argues, this requires dissolving “the massive belief systems that dominant our societies and that threaten to destroy us.”

My sense is that the most insidious, influential and largely unacknowledged of these belief systems is neoliberal capitalist ideology. That is, the critical missing piece in this lively and rapidly proliferating conversation about empathy is the failure to identify the dynamic convergence of culture, politics and the brain, what the eminent political theorist William Connolly once described as neuropolitics or the “politics through which cultural life mixes into the composition of the body/brain process. And vice versa.”

As applied here, this explanation corresponds to what the French philosopher Catherine Malebou has termed “neural ideology,” the brain’s plasticity conforming to the social and political organization of contemporary corporate capitalism. For me, the most pertinent questions remain: how does this cultural information gain access to the brain and what are the implications for understanding the neuropolitics of empathy?

For example, Dissident Voice readers are familiar with research showing that empathic concern among college students is strikingly lower than their 1970s counterparts and the decline has been especially notable since 2000. But it’s far from my intent to single out undergraduates for special censure.

It can’t be emphasized too strongly that all brains are basically alike, with the same equipment,but differing cultural experiences contribute to shaping our brains, to how we think,including how we think about empathy. Here I’m mindful not to caricature Donald Hebb’s rule that “The neurons that fire together wire together,” but his emphasis on the roles of repetition and synaptic plasticity draws our attention to the critical role of culture’s neurobiological imprinting.

Recent compelling research within cultural neuroscience demonstrates that specific, repetitive cultural priming has a measurable influence on the brain and this neural signature begins in early childhood. Tellingly, it can even override hardwired traits. As such, and in Henry Giroux’s apt phrase, our dominant empathy-anesthetizing, neoliberal culture has become the “public pedagogy” that brackets off feelings of social solidarity across the entire society.

If an empathy deficit is more apparent among undergraduates it’s because they are the legacy of over three decades of unrelenting exposure to our neoliberal ideology of unfettered greed and capitalism’s dominant narrative about human nature. Freedom has been reduced to the pursuit of economic self-realization and the “self,” a hyper-competitive, perpetual consumer, largely indifferent to the fate of others and comfortable with the commodification of morals. This cultural construction of the self is based primarily on market values, leaving selective moral amnesia in its wake.

Lest I be misunderstood here, our hegemonic culture’s social engineering allows for and even encourages individual expressions of empathy, including the volunteerism of philanthro-capitalists. Because such acts only treat symptoms and not sources, they are culturally sanctioned, pose no structural threats, and function to attenuate the acceptance, legitimization, and institutionalization of social empathy on a grand scale.

Aside from a few notable exceptions, empathy experts have failed to unpack the political questions involved in investigating the encultured brain. For example, to the extent that traditional social science has explained culture as the neutral transmission of beliefs, values, mores and laws, it doesn’t illuminate the conscious, active invention of culture by institutions serving particular class interests.

Demonstrating how powerful groups seek to influence culture and how this impacts the brain isn’t the daunting task one might imagine but that hasn’t prevented mainstream intellectuals from rarely if ever accepting this challenge. As such,the rapidly emerging neurodisciplines that fail (or refuse) to account for class will have, at best, no explanatory value and at worst, obfuscate reality under the guise of value-free scientific inquiry. This failure has devastating consequences in terms of understanding the almost total muting of our empathic impulse.

Studies on the evolutionary and biological origins of empathy are ongoing but we now have hard empirical evidence,not wishful thinking or even
logical inference, on behalf of a case for organizing vastly better societies. There is sufficient evidence that our potential for empathic engagement is being subverted by the dominant economic system and its ideology.

If an ethos of caring is an essential part of what it means to be human and an elemental requirement for human happiness, then empathically impaired societies must be found wanting and challenged. The tacit decision by neuroscholars to ignore or exclude this hypothesis from the research agenda, debate and conversation on empathy is inexcusable but not wholly unexpected.

Gary Olson is professor and chair of the political science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. He is the author of Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2013). He can be reached at: olson@moravian.edu. Read other articles by Gary.