The neuroscience of our national divide: how our brains help or hinder democracy's evolution


vol. 2 issue 57


There is no other.

Except that there is.

I know that last time I said it isn’t about “him” or about “them” but only about us, but there is a caveat.

To say we humans are all one is really only a half-truth, as we learn in this episode of docu-mental: healing the american states of mind.

My guest, James Griffith, MD, chair of the George Washington University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, lays this out clearly by explaining the neuroscience behind our current national divide.

While we Homo sapiens might be one species, we all have two operating systems in our brains, one wired for empathy, the other for group think. The more evolved brain is progressive, in that it reaches toward “the other” with compassion, in order to connect. The regressed brain, the one which is primal and focused on security and defense, is the one that categorizes “the other” as a threat that must be fought and repelled for the preservation of the tribe.

Ironically, whatever our tribe – say other americans, for example (and remember, I use little “a” to keep us all in check) – it grows wider and stronger when we operate from the more evolved empathetic brain. Peace is more prevalent when we practice this kind of vulnerability, too.

This isn’t to say threats don’t exist in the world, but maybe the extent to which they are there depends on our state of mind, whether it be more fearful or curious, and whether we are choosing to operate within our evolutionary right as humans to see “the other” with compassion and respect.

In this episode, Dr. Griffith and I explore how these concepts have manifested in our country, and examine how our two brain circuitries have been used to either manipulate or motivate us.

We begin our discussion with a look at how the covid crisis has caused a steep incline not in mental illness but in distress, and why it is important to recognize the difference.

But, there is more: There are several implicit warnings against feeling smug, thinking we are more evolved than the other guy.

So, about this idea that “there is no other.” I’ve been thinking a lot about it. “There Is No Other” is even the name of a recent eclectic album by american vocalist and instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens and Italian jazz musician Francesco Turrisi. Theirs is a celebrated musical statement that “Us v. Them” thinking clouds our historical truths.

It’s a provocative album. I like it, and I wholly respect these two impeccable artists for retracing history, in their case, across Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, in search of what our hierarchies have required us all to leave behind.

However, these kinds of political overtones in our art and commentary such as my own can also cloud our truths if we lose perspective. Namely, that it is a scientific fact that there is indeed an “other” that our brains are genetically wired to perceive unless we override that perception by choosing to see the “other” from an evolved perspective.

As I’ve written before, democracy demands complexity, and complexity demands that we seek to weave the colors of all genetic threads into the fabric of our nation. But to leap over the fact that such inclusivity means first taking responsibility for our individual choice to rely on one operating system or another is not democratic. It’s certainly not evolved.

It’s why I am still annoyed to think of there being something called “equality, diversity, and inclusion” (EDI) training. It worries me because it runs the risk of us resorting to check lists for how to avoid seeing others as “the other” which is to say, it gives us a plan for group think!

Or, to put it personally, the way I initially reacted to it EDI when it was explained to me:

Please, do not tell me who I should and should not be nice to. I will make that decision, but I will do so because I am evolved enough to choose to view the world with empathy, to seek ways to consciously cross the gap between me and “the other”.

I am also fully aware that I can be a right bitch who does not want to allow others into my group. I take responsibility for her, too, and I know what to do with her, how to talk to her, and how to make her behave without judging her because she is just as real and biologically sound as the nicer me.

So, keep your snoot in your own business.

Do you see what I am getting at?

The real power of our nation, the real gift our democracy gives is the potential to live in a free society where each of us chooses to be an evolved human being without punishing the lesser parts of ourselves. And! And without all the hierarchical horse hockey where one faction of us thinks it has the right to tell the rest of us what is right and wrong.

That is not democracy.

Whether it’s all the preachy, obnoxious, and stuck-up white men in Mitch McConnell’s cabal who presume to have dibs on what I should do with my body, or any militant other-thinking activists who want to expunge our institutions of such narrowminded men, that is not democracy.

It’s small-minded. And it is potentially irrevocably dangerous to democracy’s survival.

Writing, producing, and publishing docu-mental is an experiment in publicly thinking out loud, in front of an exponentially growing crowd of people I do not know, whose individually engaged brain’s operating system while reading me may well telegraph to them that I am a threat, not an ally. I tell you, it’s scary.

But there is also the fact that, more often than not, I have no idea what I am going to say until I sit down and write it, and increasingly, I am bewildered by where my thoughts take me. Often, it’s to the fringes.

I find that what I am delineating is how we americans are becoming the architects of our own destruction, and the destruction of what otherwise has the potential to be the most gorgeous and perfectly imperfect system of human governance ever to have existed on the planet. That’s because it is the only one that I’ve ever heard of anyway, that can balance what is real with what is imagined.

Too many of us so stupidly line up in separate camps behind either God or Science and hurl rocks at one another, even if the rocks are just words. Meanwhile, the voices from the middle ground where democracy actually lives are lost in the melee.

It’s those people in the middle we must rely upon if we’re not going to kill democracy. These are the people who, regardless of whether they articulate it this way, know that neither God nor Science alone propels us forward. I worry not enough of us cares to hear them, that we are letting the narratives of those who want to manipulate us for their own aims be the narratives that perpetuate our national self-loathing and anger at “otherness”.

This is why I am relieved somewhat when I meet, work with, and hear about people such as Dr. Griffith, who aren’t interested in being right, but are interested in helping those caught in the crossfire to be heard, and just as importantly perhaps moreso, to facilitating listening opportunities for those on the extremes, if they will allow it.

I first had the pleasure of working with “Griff” early in 2016 when I hatched the idea for a series of instructional videos for the coming onslaught of mental health concerns I detected so-called “primary care providers” (doctors hate that term; it’s an offensive and diminishing bit of jargon slapped on them by insurance companies) who typically didn’t have much training in addressing mental illnesses, would be facing thanks to changes in federal healthcare policy and an that other thing I keep railing on about – the rise in our national levels of anxiety and depression.

I was startled and impressed by Griff’s take on how patients could be reassured that in addition to anti-depressants, there were other valid paths to finding balance and connection with a brighter self, including those of a spiritual nature, where a person might lean hard on a community of faith and its shared sense that life has meaning, even when the reductionist, materially obsessed system we operate in here in America routinely serves up realities that are devoid of meaning.

Getting into the clinical implications of this is not my intention here, but of course evaluating patients to be sure they are not in danger and do not require other forms of intervention is good medicine. That’s not just a disclaimer, it’s my whole-hearted belief based on personal experience and years of observation as a reporter and journal editor in the field.

The larger point I am making is that it was clear to me that Griff, and his colleagues who also participated in the video project, viewed their patients with a compassion born of a global perspective on the nature and reality of spiritual pain, the kind that is born of believing one has no reason to hope and to dream.

Dr. Griffith is one of several in his department at GWU, including Dr. Allen Dyer, who has also been a docu-mental guest, who are actively seeking to soothe that pain and to facilitate peace in the world one relationship at a time. For example, as we hear in this episode, in addition to working with dispossessed americans living in Appalachia, Dr. Griffith works with Palestinians and Orthodox Jews in the West Bank to help foster personal understanding and compassion, by appealing to the evolved parts of those participants’ brains, the ones that seeks to empathize with not defend against one another.

We also hear in this episode about how and why this approach succeeds, and why it will likely not be either the sloganeering so-called progressives nor the MAGAs among us, but the ones rooted firmly in what is beyond the here and now, as well as in what is right before them at this moment, who are likely to lead us away from the brink.

Plenty of historians have shed light on how democracy has been defined and applied over time, but my take on it, for whatever that is worth, is that democracy is an evolutionary system of government, one that requires a soulful application of science, and one that is entirely in the hands of we humans acting moderately in the middle, perhaps aided by our better angels, but not building a forcefield around us and attributing our fortunes good, bad, or otherwise, to some supernatural force, as our current and specious national motto “In God We Trust” implies.

If anything, two key takeaways from this episode is that democracy is the bridge between soul and science, and that operating from the middle is not the same as mediocrity. The alchemy of greatness is what our original national motto, E pluribus unum — From many, one — really is.

As such, democracy is the facilitator of a potentially glorious and harmonious relationship between who we imagine ourselves capable of becoming, and what we apply our rigorous intelligence to mapping as repeatable and thus currently true. It is the link between fact and what is not fiction so much as the ineffable that cannot be proven, but which adds so much richness and purpose to our lives and so is still very much valid.

In that light, I humbly offer this episode on how to heal our national divide, the scientifically based caveat to my exhortation that our politics is always about “us”, my response to well-intentioned artists and activists who are right to remind us that we are all human.

Even so, while the explanation of the neuroscience of our current national strife is interesting, in the end, it’s just fancy proof of something those happily ensconced in the middle have known in their hearts all along, perhaps unaware that science had also mapped it out in their brains:

Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

Whatever that means to you is between you and yours, but if we each heed that Golden Rule, I reckon it means there’ll be a lot less hollerin’ and fuss in our land, even if it takes generations to get it right. But neither immediate gratification nor perfection is the goal, freedom to imagine what perfect means to each of us as individuals is.



For more about the books Dr. Griffith references in the interview:

Religion that Heals, Religion That Harms, Dr. Griffith’s own 2011 award-winning book on the subject of spirituality and mental wellness.

From the blurb:

“Dr. Griffith is a prominent author and has published research articles and books on psychiatry and spirituality. Most recently, Dr. Griffith published a book titled, Religion that Heals, Religion That Harms, that helps clinicians to intervene effectively in situations where religious faith is used harmfully. His book provides vivid examples of how religious beliefs and practices may propel suicide, violence, self-neglect, or undue suffering in the face of medical or emotional challenges and offers empathetic and respectful ways to interview patients who disdain contact with mental health professionals.”

Arlie Hochshild’s 2016 National Book Award finalist selection, Strangers in their Own Land

“The anger and hurt of the author’s interviewees are intelligible to all. In today’s political climate, this may be invaluable.” —The Economist

Time stamps for this interview:

00:00 Introduction

01:30 Difference between mental illness and mental distress

4:15 The evolutionary psychological perspective on our political provocations and how our brains are susceptible to being hijacked into group think.

5:50 The difference between empathy and categorical brain circuitry.

7:40 How one overrides the other.

9:00 “Politicians might not know how it works, but they do know the power of creating uncertainty and threat in a population,” and how this leads to conspiracies and justifications for clinging to group think driving political division that can be exploited for profit and power.

14:00 The “front-back” shift effect in our brains that halts metabolic function of our executive function when successfully manipulated through fear-mongering.

16:00 Warning to Progressives not to cloak selves in “science” that is just sloganeering.

20:50 Discussion of the best tools for overcoming the national divide, including activating the “person-to-person” network in our brains.

21:30 Why it won’t be MAGA people who facilitate peace in our land.

26:00 Discussion of lawyer and activist, Bryan Stevenson and the difference between forgiveness and awareness of the “emotional other”.

29:00 How this has been modeled in the fight around abortion.

30:00 Discussion of who actually will be the ones to lead the nation toward peace.

33:30 Why those living in Coal Country and Appalachia distrust the rest of the country but cling to the companies that have forsaken them.

38:00 The role of social media in denigrating our national tools for peaceful conflict resolution.

43:30 How does one treat the loss of a dream?

I hope you had a lot to eat for Thanksgiving. I did, and I felt very grateful to have so much on my plate.

Also, I raised a glass in thanks to you, for being a subscriber. What started as a meager list of academics and policy wonks in my circle here in DC has now rippled out exponentially across the entire nation, and at least three countries, much to my surprise and of course, delight. So many of you want to map and heal the mind of our beloved country. Thank you, thank you!

Starting next month, I will be reviewing highlights of the year and previewing what’s to come in 2021. There will be still more insights and fun for patron subscribers, including book clubs, and extra insights in my Window Over Washington posts. For everyone on the list, I have already lined up some fantastic guests, including two New York Times Bestselling authors on what kind of awesomeness healthcare could be if We the People were to dream it, and then move past the politicians and profiteers to make it so…

If you would like to share this kind of thinking out loud with others whom you think would be inspired to do the same, please share!