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Scientific advances have allowed humans to fly to the moon, to communicate with others across the globe in an instant, to create robotic limbs powered by our own brainwaves, yet – for all the progress achieved – the intricacies of the three pounds of gray matter between our ears continue to be a mystery.
The lack of groundbreaking knowledge in the field of neuroscience led president Obama to propose the Brain Activity Map (BAM) project three years ago. Entailing a pricey investment of around 3 billion dollars over the next 10 years, the initiative’s goal is to produce a map of brain function which will explain how the brain is wired and how this is ultimately translated into thoughts, feelings, and actions.
“Imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder for our veterans who are coming home,” Obama stated in the unveiling of the initiative.
The news may be heartening for those who believe the United States needs to urgently revamp its mental health system. Better insight into how the brain functions might help the estimated 45 million Americans who currently suffer from mental illnesses such as depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug abuse. Or – even more encouraging – prevent people with mental illnesses from committing atrocious crimes such as the mass shootings witnessed over the past few years.
Yet, this is a big maybe.
Will better understanding of the brain alone help to prevent future Jared Loughners, James Holmes, Adam Lanzas and Omar Mateens – the gunmen involved in the Tucson, Colorado, Sandy Hook and Orlando shootings – from carrying out their deranged plans?
A look into their past indicates otherwise. What all four had in common was a well-advanced state of mental illness, with many signs throughout their childhood and adolescent years that should have waved red flags to their family, teachers, and school counselors, but which either went unnoticed or sparked warnings that were not followed up on.
According to Bruce Perry, a leading expert in the neuroscience of child trauma, the solution lies not only in trying to change the brain after the damage has been done, but in changing core values and current trends in child rearing and education.
“We’re spending literally 95 percent of our public dollars to change the brain, because that’s what mental health is, that’s what public education is, that’s what juvenile justice intervention is, all of these are trying to change the brain. We’re spending 95 percent of our dollars on children at a time when their brain is much harder to modify. We’re spending almost nothing in the first five years of life when the brain is easiest to modify and it takes the least amount of professional input, the least amount of insight. It takes just high-quality caregiving during the early years of life,” he stated in 2003.
Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety disorders are on the rise. Combine this with a steady increase in social isolation, lack of empathy and lack of trust, then the result is a dangerous cocktail of high-risk factors.
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In his book, Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential, Perry notes that modern-day American society is immersed in a dangerous cocktail of intrusive and never-ending stimuli that may inadvertently convert it into a destructive and non-empathetic culture. Put into context, he writes, the changes in technology, in what we see in the media, and in the way we relate to others has hurt the quality of our relationships.
Just between the years 1985 and 2004, the proportion of people in America with no close friends or family members tripled. In 1960, 58 percent of Americans said they could trust in most people, while in 2008, this figure lowered to 32 percent. Put simply, the average American trusts less in other people and has a harder time maintaining close relationships than in the past.
Is technology and the media to blame? After all, what can be expected from a culture in which having someone’s undivided attention is impossible due to the flurry of online messages, tweets and emails that must be attended to in the middle of a conversation; or where “torture porn” movies like the Saw series are consumed; and where celebrity meltdowns like that of Britney Spears and Justin Bieber are entertainment?
Perhaps they are in part the culprits, but Perry cites other trends. He claims that two decades ago, children had four times as many opportunities to interact with others than they do nowadays. Before, children grew up in extended families. Today, these families are becoming smaller and smaller, while the urban areas they live in are becoming larger and larger. The result, he says, is a child with a poverty of relationships.
“There’s no better biological interaction that you can have than a relationship. It’s much more of a biological intervention to form a relationship with someone in therapy than it is to give him or her a pill. Relationships are the absolute heart of humanity… When we have these opportunities to form healthy relationships with family, with neighbors, with coworkers, with members of the community, we’re healthy. When we don’t have those opportunities, we literally are physiologically at risk,” he concludes.
Would have a different upbringing and a greater amount of healthy relationships in the life of James Holmes, the Tucson gunman, prevented him from committing such atrocities? We may never know.
What is certain is that a greater amount of empathy, or at least interest, on the part of school officials – such as the university psychiatrist who was aware of Holmes' illness but dropped the case after he withdrew from school – might have prevented the loss of many other lives.
In a society where relationships are mediated more by money, status, and personal goals, – and where trust has become a rarity – it comes to no surprise that it is becoming harder and harder to maintain close relationships. Yet, for all the modern-day “assaults” on our mental health and emotions, one thing is clear: some of the best solutions are also the most obvious. While we invest billions in mapping the brain, we would do even better if we also invested in healthy relationships.
Note: The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of Visme.
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