May 17, 2007
“The Compassionate Brain” by Gerald Huther, Ph.D.
The Compassionate Brain by Gerald Huther, Ph.D. (Trumpeter, 2006. Paperback, $14.00).
Gerald Huther is head of neurobiological research at a psychiatric clinic in Germany, working to discover more about the effects of fear, stress, addiction and nutrition on the brain. This book is a by-product of that research.
For Huther the human brain is a densely networked structure that is open-ended in terms of its programmability. Unlike those found in many other forms of life – such as stickleback fish whose complicated mating rituals are genetically predetermined – the human brain at birth is pretty much open-ended in terms of how it can be programmed. You come into the world with a brain whose final wiring is going to be connected up and consolidated in accordance with how you use it.
There is an upside and a downside to this. The bad news is that if you don’t get what you need in the first years of life – if your relationship with your primary caregiver is traumatic, for example – that can “canalize” defective coping strategies that manifest in later life as psychological disturbance and antisocial behavior.
The good news is that given the human brain’s extraordinary plasticity we can change its structure through changing how we use it. We can sharpen our senses by attending more sensitively and precisely to our inner and outer worlds. We can develop a great capacity to empathize with others’ feelings, putting ourselves in their place. And we can come increasingly to know ourselves – aware of what is taking place within ourselves, conscious of who we are and how we came to be like this.
By deciding how and for what purposes we are going to use our brains, we also end up making a decision about what kind of brain we are going to end up with. For here you really do need to “use it or lose it” and the choice not to embark on a path of development but rather to stay as you are might well be the last free choice you make: the more frequently you use the old established neuronal circuits you currently have the more embedded they become.
If you don’t want to become stuck in that way, following the old worn-in ruts, you have to call your experience into question again and again. By following the usual human path of egocentricity – seeing oneself as the center of the world and acting accordingly – one embeds a fixed pattern of repetitive neuronal connectivity. The harder path of self-development, which leads to a more comprehensive, complex and more highly networked brain, consists in developing qualities that go beyond self-centeredness. Sensibleness, uprightness, humility, prudence, truthfulness, reliability, empathy, and courtesy; qualities such these cannot be developed in isolation. They come as part of a matrix of social feelings that involve connectedness and solidarity that transcend our usual self-centeredness. In the end, says Huther, a person who wishes to use his or her brain in the most comprehensive manner must also learn to love.
Huther sets his arguments out clearly and precisely. The book is styled as a kind of “user’s manual” for the human brain, with section headings such as “Removing the Packing and Protective Materials,” “Options for Assembly and Possible Applications,” “Advice About Installations Already in Place,” “Repairing Failed Installations,” “Maintenance and Servicing,” and so on. I wonder at the wisdom of this choice, for like a user’s manual the book often comes across as drier and less poetic than its title would otherwise suggest. For those who keep going at it, this book has considerable wisdom to offer alongside its hard science. Many readers, though, will wish there were a few more oases of imagery and poetry along the way.
Michael Chaskalson (also known as Kulananda) is a leading teacher of mindfulness-based approaches to work and healthcare, training senior executives, executive coaches, clinical psychologists and others in this radical approach to creativity and personal effectiveness. With Dominic Houlder he is the author of Mindfulness and Money and has written several books on Buddhist themes. See www.mbsr.co.uk for more information.