Activism through Self-knowledge (and How Neuroscience Can Help)

Jenny Rice, author of “Inquiry as Social Action,” draws our attention to what she calls “exceptional public subjects,” people who distance themselves from public issues and crises because of a lack of feeling, of personal connection and investment. How do we engage such people in the absence of those feelings and passions? Rice proposes inquiry as the solution and explains how tracing networks, finding the threads that compose a system, and pondering alternative relationships can function as an effective approach that does not presuppose a personal motivation for investigation.

I think that approaching public issues from a personal perspective is an intuitive first step. An issue that seems pertinent to you seems more pertinent overall. Why is this? It comes down to a concept of “us” and “them.” We prefer people who we deem as part of our in-group and react more strongly to issues that people within our in-group share. For example, if I’m a parent of a homosexual child who faces bullying in school because of his or her sexual orientation, I will feel a bond with other parents dealing with the same sort of discrimination and may go to school board meetings in attempt to change their policy regarding sexual orientation-based harassment. From an outside perspective, one could logically argue that we should target bullying in schools in general. After all, bullying due to race, religion, interests, etc. is just as wrong as other kinds of bullying. But for me, as a parent of a gay middle-schooler, those other issues just don’t resonate. And when it comes to our feelings toward the out-group, they can range from neutral indifference (like our exceptional public subjects) to outright hate. They’re different, and that sort of sentiment seems to be enough to have fueled discrimination since the start of human record.

I’m a neuroscience major, an aspiring physician, and a happily self-identified nerd. So for me, it’s not good enough to simply identify a social phenomenon. Where does it come from? In what does it have its root? Is our us/them differentiation a product of how our parents raised us, the communities in which we lived, the genetics we inherited, or some tangle of yet unknown factors? Neuroscience can begin to answer this, and researchers at Yale have already provided a crucial and fascinating piece of the puzzle. In an attempt to decipher this nature versus nurture dilemma, investigators at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center turned to people who have had a very small amount of environmental molding:  five month old infants. The infants were offered a choice between Cheerios and graham crackers, and later, the infants watched a puppet show in which one puppet chose Cheerios to snack on and another puppet chose graham crackers. Once the show was over, the infants were presented with both puppets. The results? As this clip from 60 Minutes shows, the infants overwhelming reached for the puppet that had picked the same snack that they had. What’s more, further studies show that the infants preferred puppets that were mean to the puppet that had picked the snack that they had not picked. So what does this all mean? On a genetically innate, inborn level, we like “us” and we don’t like “them.”


When it comes to public issues, then, we care about issues that affect our public, however we define that, much more than issues that affect some other public. And it looks like that’s something that’s going to be relatively hard to change. Rice’s class on using inquiry to discover the Midwest did seem to produce the results she wanted, but as I read her article, I wondered if her idea could ever be implemented on a wide-spread scale. Can we overcome this hard-wired bias? Can we create an impetus in people who have the potential to exact acknowledgement and change within a system yet who lack a reason to make that goal their own?

I think we can. I think we can if, and only if, we recognize our bias. This has to be step one. The breakthroughs in neuroscience allow us to be cognizant of ourselves on a new level and it is our duty to take advantage of this. Knowing that our brains make distinctions between publics based on trivialities (Cheerios versus graham crackers!) forces us to question our innate feelings of relative importance. We are, as Rice eloquently points out, at the intersections of “incongruent and asymmetrical networks” on “regional, national, and global” levels. We are affected by, and have the power to affect, more than we realize. Ultimately, it is the knowledge of our own illogicality and acceptance of our broader sphere of responsibility that will drive bystanders to become participants and observers to become actors.

Information source: “Born good? Babies help unlock the origins of morality.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 18 Nov. 2012. Web. 12 Jan. 2015.

Image source: Wallace, Kelly. “What your baby knows might freak you out.” CNN. 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 12 Jan. 2015.

Image source: Zaringhalam, Maryam. “Reading Brainbow.” artlab. 12 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Jan. 2015.


One thought on “Activism through Self-knowledge (and How Neuroscience Can Help)

  1. Noel January 14, 2015 / 7:23 pm

    Paulina, you did a wonderful job with this rough draft. Though concise, I feel you range with ease across a set of problems related to bias, identity, subject position, and personal motivation when it comes to public issues. And I really love the questions you pose in your second to last paragraph—these are questions with uneasy answers, and I would definitely like to see how our class attempts to answer them. Great title, too!

    Here are my revision suggestions, which you’ll note have more to do with blogging conventions than with content. First, I like the image that you have included, but would encourage you to find 1-2 more images, particularly one to open your post, grabbing readers’ attention. Because you’re coming from a neuroscience perspective, I wonder if you could find any diagrams or illustrations—particularly ones geared toward the general public (given the recent rise in interest in popular neuroscience writing)—that illuminate the workings of identity, bias, and/or us/them binaries in the brain. I’m not suggesting anything too complex or scientifically accurate, but only an illustration or two that would complement your words, especially something that would allude to the idea of networks that runs through Rice’s writing and which you open the piece with.

    Second, linking us to a video excerpt of the study you mention is a good idea, but instead of posting the URL in a sentence on its own, you could better integrate the link in the paragraph above with a sentence like, “As this clip from 60 Minutes discusses, the infants overwhelmingly reached for the puppet that had picked the same snack that they had,” where “60 Minutes” is a hyperlink to the Youtube clip (the comments box won’t let me make a hyperlink, but when done correctly, as you probably know, “60 Minutes” would be blue, and you could click on it and head to the Youtube page). Also consider hyperlinking to the main page for Yale’s Infant Cognition Center. Finally, we have a lot of information about the Midwest class that Jenny Rice taught, and a lot of times, we can find materials from courses online (just as someone could search for our course and find this blog). If you haven’t done so already, it would be cool to see if you can find the wiki that Jenny Rice’s students created—it might not be accessible to us, but if it is, it’d be a super cool thing to link.

    Don’t forget to proofread your final draft—I noticed a couple rough spots, which is okay for the rough draft. And you’ll want to put “Inquiry as Social Action” in quotations, not italics, as it’s a chapter from Rice’s book Distant Publics (which should be in italics, but—alas—the comments box doesn’t want to do that either).

    Great draft!


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