Some parts of a woman's brain change up to 25% through the course of a month. "When I started taking a woman's hormonal state into account as I evaluated her psychiatrically, I discovered the massive neurological effects her hormones have during different stages of life in shaping her desires, her values, and the very way she perceives reality," writes Dr. Louann Brizendine in The Female Brain.
I mention this because I want to make a bold claim. One that I think will be proven in the next decade or two but is not - to the best of my knowledge - yet proven or even claimed by any serious professionals.
It is not just that people in different cultures and points of developmental history have different opinions and beliefs: their brains are wired differently.
To take a simple example, in schools were children don't feel as safe and violence and bullying is common, test scores are lower to reflect, I believe, more time spent in the fight or flight portion of their brain and less time in the frontal lobes.
The brain of a villager living in a rural area of Afghanistan who suffers from hunger, is regularly coerced by threats of violence, and feels as though he has little control over his life will be bathed in a very different set of hormones and chemicals than the brain of a Greenwich villager living in New York who worries about overeating, is regularly persuaded by advertising, and feels like he has no purpose in his life. It is not just that these two people have different beliefs about the world. I would argue that these two have very different brains.
My personal opinion is that a sense of control is the biggest determinant of how the brain is wired and world view formed.
And this matters for policy. Imagine going into Mississippi to "help" the locals to give up on their curious religious beliefs and odd superstitions in order to become more developed and prosperous. It probably would not be long before they had taken up arms to chase you and your BMW-driving friends out of town. It is not as though you can simply offer some new information to change how they think. You would likely have to change the way their brain is wired, the way they make sense of the world. You cannot simply bring new policies into old brains, put new wine into old bottles.
It might just be that the answer is to change conditions for the next generation as much as possible. Alleviating hunger. Adding control and order to the point that people feel less intimidated in their daily lives. Offering choices to the young. These actions might plant the seeds for then introducing policies that will be welcomed rather than repulsed.
I love the idea of psychology, cognitive science, and therapy. I think that happiness and peace of mind is more important than we allow. But as I get older, I am more inclined to believe that social systems do as much to define psychology and cognition as anything we could do with an individual in a particular social milieu. To change the individual, you have to change the social system. Change the world he lives in and you change the individual. I predict that we'll even find that if you change the world he lives in, you change the very composition of his brain.