Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What do we know about the neurology of human flourishing?

“Human flourishing is fundamentally a self-directed activity. ... Flourishing does not consist in the mere possession and use of goods that might be necessary for a flourishing life. Rather, human flourishing consists in a person developing the skills, habits, judgements and virtues that will, in most cases, achieve the needed goods. The goods must, in a central way, be made one’s own”: Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, “Norms of Liberty”, 2005: 86.

Is there a readable book about the neurology of human flourishing? The only book that I am aware of that comes close is “Iconoclast”, by Gregory Berns. This book discusses things that have probably happened at a neurological level when famous people have achieved extraordinary things. The brain functions and processes that Berns writes about, however, seem to me to be relevant to the character development and flourishing of all humans.

What are the factors most likely to prevent individuals from achieving according to their potential? Anyone writing a list from the top of their head would be likely to include such things as: getting one’s thinking stuck in a rut; being constrained by fear of the unknown or fear of ridicule; social environments that reward conformity rather than individuality; and lack of skills in social networking. Gregory Berns discusses these factors.

Points made by Berns include the following:

  • In order to think creatively and imagine new possibilities it is necessary to break out of the cycle of experience-dependent categorization. We need novel experiences in order to see things differently.
  • Constraints associated with conditioned fear responses can be inhibited through cognitive reappraisal (re-interpretation of information). For example, fear of uncertainty or ambiguity can be inhibited if the situation is viewed as an opportunity to gain additional knowledge by experimenting.
  • People have a strong tendency to follow the herd in order to avoid activating their fear systems. But one dissenter is typically enough to break the herd effect.
  • Important social networking skills include promoting familiarity with the goods you are selling (because familiarity defines what people like) and establishing a reputation for being trustworthy.

Do we need a neurologist to tell us such things? Probably not, but it is good to know that there is neurological evidence supporting at least some of the claims made by personal development practitioners.

There is a fair amount of discussion in the book relating to wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity and justice, but I don’t think there is much discussion of temperance or transcendence. One could hardly have expected all the human virtues to be discussed in the book, however, because Greg Burns did not actually set out to write a book about the neurology of human flourishing.

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