ESR 4 Blog July 2021: Jenny Fradranski

Community instead of hierarchy

One of my overarching research questions is: what are the cultural conditions for thriving, sustainable, fluid democracies – and this does not pertain to the state only, but to groups, institutions and companies that so often claim to have democratic cultures. The question that personally has occupied me for a long time in this context is: what is the relationship between the development of an individual and the agenda of a group/team/company/school class/family? What does it need for an individual to unfold its potential and how does the group organize individual and collective needs? A fairly new perspective on these questions comes from the field of neuroscience and insights into the functioning of the brain.

The renowned German neuroscientist Gerald Hüther has written extensively about the development of the brain within our societal structures and is also the founder of the Akademie für Potentialentfaltung. He argues that we come to the world with an inherent drive to learn and with two primary needs: the need for connection and the need for autonomy. Within the first year of our life, we undergo an immense learning process and perceive ourselves as a subject that explores the environment and decides what it wants to learn. No one can teach a baby how to walk or to speak, but in this self-determined learning process it is dependent on the connection to its parents.

As we grow older we are more and more confronted with expectations and judgments of others – in our families but especially in schools – through which we experience ourselves as objects. Being an object of someone’s expectations and judgments is experienced as a disappointment and violates both primary needs. According to Hüther being treated as an object causes a loss of autonomy and a loss of connection to the other. Through brain scans researchers have found that the brain uses the same networks for the experience of absence of connection as it does for physical pain. Hüther concludes that this proves that we are highly social creatures, but also when a child cannot learn in a self-determined way it literally causes pain. Throughout our lives we learn to cope with this pain in our individual ways, but in the worst case we suppress our desire to learn and to explore on our own.

Hüther also argues that the puzzling thing, is that we are on the one hand highly individual in the sense that every human being is unique with a need for autonomy, but we are also dependent on living in communities due to our need for connection. For the past 10,000 years we have relied on hierarchies to solve this problem of social organization. If someone has the power to tell others what to do, it seemingly becomes less complicated to live together. Unfortunately, though hierarchies also rely on treating each other as objects of commands which neuroscience has shown is counterproductive to the functioning of the brain – it stops self-determined learning and the unfolding of potential. Unfortunately, our education systems still rely on these hierarchies but it also becomes more and more obvious everywhere that hierarchies are not fit anymore to solve today’s challenges, to be flexible enough to react to new developments, to teach young people how to improvise and be creative in this complex world, to hold the space for exploration and the diversity of human potential. But we also realize more and more that we are simply not happy in competitive, hierarchical systems. Our consciousness is evolving, and although there are great forces to sustain the old, the future lies in communities that explore ways of supporting each other and learning together.

Hüther, G., & Hauser, U. (2019). Würde: Was uns stark macht – als Einzelne und als Gesellschaft. Pantheon.

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