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To expect relatively new brain imaging technologies and human interpretations of those data to explain why we behave as we do and how we can do better might be placing too much confidence in technology, science, and the Western cultural lens through which most scientists perceive the world.
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The Missing Link: Neuroscience and Indigenous Wisdom
In the ongoing search for “a theory of everything,” some people look to string theory for a mathematical explanation, while others prefer the uncertainty quantum physics allows. The science that has taken the strongest hold in our collective imagination, however, is cognitive neuroscience. In 2007, for example, Colorado State University’s David McCabe and UCLA’s Alan Castel found that placing an image of a brain with its patterns of activity into an article increased the likelihood that study participants would believe the article’s assertions, whether or not the article described a fictitious or implausible finding. Brain research has found its way into education, corporate marketing, and even “folk knowledge.” Some of it, of course, has contributed to our understanding of human behavior and wellness, such as neuroscientific findings on the significant role emotions and preconceptions play in our decision making. But a number of brain scientists’ conclusions about the nature of reality may be contributing to rather than solving many of our current world problems.
Perhaps cognitive neuroscience and its cousin neuropsychology have captured such interest because of their sophisticated technologies, such as fMRI and PET scans. We are as enamored with technology as we are the workings of the brain, so the combination is irresistible. Nonetheless, neither neuroscience nor technology seems to have done much to mitigate our wars, ecological problems, and social inequities. This does not mean that neuropsychologists aren’t trying. A number of experiments in the last decade have sought to address some of these problems by exploring questions such as these:
- In light of research that suggests biases lurk below our awareness, how can we prevent the affect of such harmful prejudice on our conscious, thoughtful deliberation?
- What are the biological and spiritual bases for social trust, and how can social experiences be healing and restorative?
- What can neuropsychological studies tell us about the mind-body-spirit connection?
- Is deception a critical evolutionary survival mechanism in human beings?
Nevertheless, a number of contemporary researchers are critical of the conclusions brought forth by neuroscience, though they may not be as negative as developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s skepticism back in 1984 when he wrote, “The packaging of current research on the human brain threatens to tell us more about academic huckstering than about neurological function.” More recent concerns are found in the scholarly 2003 book Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience by neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett and philosopher Peter Hacker, which questions some of the basic assumptions (for example, dualism) behind brain-mind research. After all, there are about 100 billion neurons in the human brain, and each is connected to thousands of others. Moreover, most behaviors, beliefs, and emotions engage multiple parts of the brain, and the variety of possible interactions with memory, culture, and DNA is unfathomable. To expect relatively new brain imaging technologies and human interpretations of those data to explain why we behave as we do and how we can do better might be placing too much confidence in technology, science, and the Western cultural lens through which most scientists perceive the world.
Of course, there are many who recognize this. In the Spring 2010 issue of the Noetic Post (IONS’ membership newsletter), for example, independent researcher Scott Anderson called for a genuine science of subtle energy as a way toward“personal and spiritual healing, growth, and development across the life cycle [that] will be key determinants of the kind of world we leave to future generations.” Although conventional science cannot easily explain subtle energy as it relates to such phenomena as chi, spirit, intuition, telepathy, and healing by prayer, the urgent need for solutions to the problems facing our world demands that we give it more attention. New fields of study such as positive psychology focus on the strengths and virtues that enable us to be truly happy. Research into meditation has delivered some important insights into human health and well-being. However, continued exclusive dependence on standard scientific methods, which these arenas depend on for mainstream acceptance, will not be sufficient to address the breadth and depth of the challenges humanity is facing.
A More Holistic Perspective
There is a way for the neurosciences to yield more fruitful solutions to our current crises, and that is through an active partnership with indigenous wisdom, now often referred to as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). TEK has proven relatively successful in helping human societies to live happy, balanced, and sustainable lives. Unlike typical Western sciences, the data from indigenous wisdom is generated from observations over long time periods in one location and is substantiated by applications to real-world living. Also, rather than attempt to be a cultural and objective—a limiting if not impossible feat—indigenous wisdom embraces a holistic subjectivity that honors authentic reflection on lived experience and relationships with others.
Indigenous wisdom is comprised of the learning that has occurred in diverse locations around the world from people who have spent centuries deeply studying their intimate relationships with all dimensions of reality. Although such wisdom has been largely ignored, suppressed, or marginalized, more and more critical and creative thinkers are recognizing its importance. For example, in an endorsement of John Perkins’s book Shapeshifting: Techniques for Global and Personal Transformation, Edgar Mitchell writes, “Only a handful of visionaries have recognized that indigenous wisdom can aid the transition to a sustainable world.”
The application of indigenous wisdom (for example, a nonanthropocentric worldview and realization of interconnectedness) in the neurosciences is important not only because of the limitations of the new technologies or the complexities of the human brain and mind but also to reverse a dangerous trend. Some neuroscientific interpretations are penetrating our consciousness with new ideas about human nature that may not only be wrong but also lead us further and further away from what we wish for our offspring and ourselves. For example, they are teaching us that deception is a natural evolutionary survival mechanism, that selfishness is the primary motivation for all behavior, that humans are superior to other life forms, and that war is inherently natural to our species. Indigenous ways of knowing challenge such assumptions—in fact, the accurate histories of indigenous cultures themselves contradict them.
For example, in contrast to neuropsychological and anthropological inferences that human violence and competition are basic features in human nature, many indigenous cultural histories have long revealed that healthy reciprocity and cooperation are more defining traits. Johan M. G. van der Dennen’s 2005 dissertation, “The Politics of Peace and War in Pre-literate Societies,” is one of numerous studies that offer substantial evidence for this. He considered it a pity that the peaceable pre-societies, which represent more than 70 percent of all that have been studied, constitute a nuisance to most theories of warfare and that they are, with few exceptions, either denied or “explained away.” If neuroscientists and neuropsychologists brought indigenous cultural paradigms to their brain research, their findings might help to mitigate the degree of violence that takes place against ourselves and other natural systems.
Interestingly, neuroscience itself tends to confirm the problem of “the Western lens.” In a paper entitled “Mind and Culture,” published in Current Directions in Psychological Science in 2009, Nalini Ambady and Jamshed Bharucha, professors of psychology at Tufts University, use the term “cultural mapping” to describe how the brain reorganizes itself throughout life as it develops a cultural lens through which to perceive the world. What different conclusions might emerge if neuroscientists added indigenous wisdom to their Western experiential mind-set? An understanding of these realities and histories might change hypothetical assumptions and the lens through which the results of experiments are interpreted, such as those on selfishness using games of monopoly. Indeed, it would change the experiments themselves. (I explore this question with my coauthors Greg Cajete and Jongmin Jongmin in Critical Neurophilosophy and Indigenous Wisdom; Sense Publishers, 2009.)
The Promise of Indigenous Wisdom
Indigenous wisdom is not mere folk psychology, although intuition, self-reflection (especially in relation to experiences with both the visible and invisible worlds), metacognition, and observation of human nature have certainly contributed to it. Indigenous wisdom is the product of careful and methodologically sound observations of the natural world (which includes humans) that have been tested and retested for thousands of years in the rigorous real-life laboratories of survival and well-being. The results include inventions and contributions that relate to food development, storage, and preparation; herbal-based medicines; clothing and transportation; astronomy; sustainable practices; and more. Indigenous wisdom has also influenced concepts of democratic governance and approaches to child discipline, equitable wealth distribution, positive interpersonal relationships, and conflict resolution that reunites communities.
So, rather than ignore, reject, or relegate Indigenous wisdom to merely new age diversions, coupling it with the prestigious neurosciences might start a revolution in how we study the brain and lead to the reorganizing of our own neurons in time to save ourselves from extinction.
The preceding article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of the Noetic Post, the newsletter for supporting members of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. To learn more about membership, go here.
Ambady, N., and J. J. Bharucha. “Culture and the Brain,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 18 (2009): 342–345.
Colorado State University. “Brain Images Make Cognitive Research More Believable,” Science Daily, October 8, 2007. See also McCabe, D. P., and A. D. Castel. “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition 107 (2008): 343–352.
Four Arrows, G. Cajete, and J. Lee. Critical Neurophilosophy and Indigenous Wisdom. Netherlands: Sense Publishing, 2009.
Gardner, H. Art, Mind, and Brain: A Cognitive Approach to Creativity. New York: Basic Books, 1984.
Van der Dennen, J. M. G. Origin of War: The Evolution of a Male-Coalitional Reproductive Strategy. Groningen: Origin Press, 1995.