Are our brains “hard-wired” toward certain behaviors?
A recent NPR piece about the hazing death of a college student reflects on this much-debated question regarding our psychological makeup. Naturally, moments of tragedy spark these discussions with a rekindled sense of urgency. Christians and non Christians alike want to ask the big question: how could this have happened? Is there hope for humanity? Ultimately, the deeper question seems to be another version of “Who are we?”
Conclusively, the research shows that static behaviors such as violence or compassion are actually not ingrained into our brains. From an evolutionary perspective, it seems that human survival over the course of time has depended more on an individual’s ability to adapt and fit into their social context. Humans are “pack” animals who rely on the support and resources received from primary caregivers and surrounding community. Survival instincts are synonymous with the ability to attach, cooperate, empathize and respond appropriately in order to solidify social bonds.
In a sense, we may not be hard-wired, but are more likely soft-wired toward certain behavior. Neuropsychological research like that of Louis Cozolino affirms that there is a “plasticity” of the brain, a capacity of the neural pathways to adapt and, ultimately, to change our behavior. We may be personally inclined toward a certain behavior, but our relationships actually reshape our brains.
Recognizing the influence of socialization on our thoughts, habits and behaviors is essential when examining disquieting events such as this hazing death. In their social context, could the students have “chosen” to act in any other way? If we are, evolutionarily, the product of our socialization, how does human will and the grace of God come into play?
As a Christian therapist, I find these studies to be quite inspiring and informative to the process of change. My clients in the middle of their therapeutic process tend to struggle with this same question of whether change is actually possible. Once exposed, our ingrained habits, thoughts and self beliefs can feel incredibly stubborn and hard to overcome. Though early socialization and the formative impact of primary caretakers have a great influence on our behavior, the effect that a new social environment can have on our behavior offers hope.
If we accept this concept that community is the most formative facet of behavior, it should cause us to examine with seriousness the calling we have as Christians to a counter-formative community. Throughout Scripture, God has primarily chosen to work redemptively through communities of people, whereas individual deliverance is less common. Social and cultural structures influence who we become as a people, whether aggressive or peaceful, empowered or powerless. When God does choose to work in an individual life, he typically calls them away from their social context and into a new community: think of Moses, Abraham, Joseph or the Israelites who left Egypt and wandered for years in the wilderness. Christian tradition has, for centuries, emphasized the importance of community and points us to reflect on the alternative narrative offered in Scripture.
As Christians, we have an invitation to step into our communities with this hope in mind. Individual change starts at a community level. God is in the business of reforming and informing the culture of our communities. Not only does God call us to enter into relationship with one another, but he sets radical standards and values on those communities in order to cause them to flourish. Therefore, perhaps participation in God’s redemptive work in the world means that we proactively engage in our community in Scripturally revolutionary ways.
What Do You Think?
- In your everyday experience, does human behavior appear to be hard-wired or malleable?
- What practical ways can Christian community offer restoration to those who have destructive formative experiences?
- How have you experienced behavioral restoration in your own life?