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Your brain on authoritarianism: The inside forces that drive people to turn on democracy

Members of the National Guard and the Washington, D.C., police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capitol. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Members of the National Guard and the Washington, D.C., police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capitol. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The brain, behavior and authoritarianism.

“If you look throughout the course of history, and you see times when people have veered towards authoritarian or totalitarian lines of thinking, that’s been in times when there’s some big withdrawals being made from people’s body budgets,” Lisa Feldman Barrett says.

“And the two most expensive things your brain can do is move your body and deal with uncertainty and chaotic circumstances.”

Today, On Point: The social and neurological forces that drive people to turn their backs on democracy.

Democracy is messy. It’s fully of surprising facts. And democracy’s all about adjusting to the world as it changes,” authoritarian expert Tim Snyder says.


Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale. Author of several books, including “Our Malady” and “The Road to Unfreedom.” (@TimothyDSnyder)

Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University. Chief science officer for the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital. Author of “7 1/2 Lessons About the Brain.” (@LFeldmanBarrett)

Interview Highlights

On the history of philosophical thought and democracy

Timothy Snyder: “We don’t even need 2021 to tell us. There’s a long tradition of philosophical thought about this. From Plato, who has Socrates say that none of us is self-sufficient, all the way up to Rousseau, who has a book called Emile about how you have to educate people to work in public. We’ve known for a very long time that if you want to have a complex form of politics, the kind that you described in your introduction, you have to have individuals who are educated in a certain way, and who are aware of what they are doing, who have a kind of reflectiveness.

“Democracy’s about reflection. It’s about seeing the world, it’s about self-correction. Which means that it’s not at all the default form of politics. Historically speaking, it’s quite exceptional. And I think one of the problems we have in America is that we’ve kind of come to think that freedom just means, ‘Whatever I happen to think, whatever I happen to be convinced of, whatever I feel like doing at this very moment.’ And that notion of freedom is highly manipulable by larger forces, by media, especially by social media. And that version of freedom is probably incompatible with democracy. Because it makes reflection something that we just don’t do.”

On the ‘most important purpose’ of our brains

Lisa Feldman Barrett: “We don’t have brains because brains are rational. They allow us to be rational and controlled in some deliberate way. That’s not really the pinnacle of brain evolution. We have brains because brains are important for regulating bodies. And if you look all the way back to the dawn of when brains evolved, they evolved for the … most important purpose … to really regulate the systems of your body. So your brain, you can think is running like a budget for your body, all the systems inside your body.

“So right now, as we’re talking, as our listeners are listening, there’s a whole drama going on inside each of us that we’re really largely unaware of because our brains are basically taking care of regulating our hearts, our lungs and so on. We can talk about it as a body budget, and the brain doesn’t budget money. It’s budgeting glucose, and salt, and oxygen, and water and so on to keep us alive and well. And the two most expensive things your brain can do is move your body around, like when you’re exercising or just dragging yourself out of bed in the morning.

“And learning something new, particularly in conditions of uncertainty. And so learning something new, something unexpected, particularly when circumstances are uncertain, doesn’t have to be a bad stress. Because a bad stress just means that your brain is preparing your body for a big metabolic outlay that isn’t replenished after the fact. But you know, people who exercise every day know that if they replenish what they spend, it’s just a good investment. And so education can be that as well.”

On the hardships of American life, and the importance of monitoring brain health

Lisa Feldman Barrett: “In addition to all the political uncertainty and the difficulties that come from economic hardship and so on, there is also day to day. Ambiguities that are built into American life, and that make our body budgets just a little harder to keep in balance. Like the casual brutality of everyday life where people speak to each other in ways that you don’t know if those harsh words are a greeting of friendliness, or a threat to your physical well-being. And we can’t use salty words on air, so I won’t give you specific examples.

“There is a certain degree of social isolation that everyone is experiencing, even people who are very wealthy. And you know, we are social animals. We evolved to have socially dependent nervous systems. So you don’t manage your body budget on your own. Other people metaphorically make deposits and withdrawals. And one thing that seems important here is that when you join a social movement, you surround yourself with people who are like-minded. Who think the way that you do. Whose behavior is very predictable to you, because you’re predictable to them.

“And that actually gives your body budget a bit of a break. It makes it just easier to get through the day when other people are very predictable to you. Because in the end, the best thing for a human nervous system, for your body budget, is another human. But the worst thing also is another human. And being around people who are unpredictable or who believe things that you don’t believe … you pay some metabolic taxes for that. And it doesn’t really matter how monetarily impoverished or enriched you are. You’ll pay that tax.”

On the benefit of making eye contact and talking with each other, despite differences

Lisa Feldman Barrett: “We have this amazing capacity, when we talk about connecting with each other, that’s not just a metaphor. So when we’re in the same room with each other and we are communicating, our breathing and our heart rates can synchronize, our movements can synchronize. We regulate each other’s attention by eye contact. Making eye contact can actually make someone pay more attention to you. It can direct what they pay attention to and so on. So in a very real way, we are the regulators and caretakers of each other’s nervous systems as much as our own. And this is really important. Because it means that we are even for the briefest moment, creating a social reality that is different from one where everyone is in their own little sort of informational silos.

“And I just want to make a point. We haven’t really talked about social reality and then what that is. But almost everything we’re talking about here, democracy, the presidency, politics and so on. This is in the domain of social reality, where a group of people basically by collective agreement claim, make up a reality and then it becomes true. Like we impose the function of currency on little pieces of paper and then poof, those little pieces of paper have value, to trade for material goods.

“So much so that they influence people’s actual [reality]. And so when people talk to each other and when they communicate with each other, that is the basis of a more robust social reality. When a president all of a sudden starts doing something that’s different than other presidents did, and the public who elected that president don’t do anything, or implicitly agree that it’s OK. Then in fact, by definition, it becomes OK because the rule is defined by social reality. And the only antidote there is for people to actually communicate with each other.”

On the role democratic institutions have in pushing back 

Timothy Snyder: “We’ve identified, let’s say, three problems. Social media, wealth inequality, the lack of a welfare state. If we solved all of those problems, would Americans all be perfect angels of democracy? No. But would America be a sounder democracy? And would people in general behave better? In general, have more time for one another? In general, be better listeners? And in general, be more open to the facts? Yes, in general, they would be.

“So I would say first, let’s do all the things that we know would work and then confront the issue, which I agree … exists of bad will. I mean, of course, there are people who don’t like democracy. Of course, there are people who love authoritarianism. One of them was just the president of the United States. We got to watch it for four years and we’re still watching it.

“So of course, there’s also a moral side to this. And when one speaks of institutions and one speaks about neurological structures, there’s still something left over, which is ethics. Democracy is also an ethic. I also think democracy leads to good outcomes. I have an ethical commitment to democracy. I think everyone has the right to be represented. And we can’t leave that aside. That’s of course, also part of the picture.”

From The Reading List

Los Angeles Times: “Op-Ed: Words to fight the many faces of tyranny” — “It was one of those uncanny nights when everything blurs and then clarifies. It was July 20, 2017, and my family had just arrived in Warsaw. A protest march was underway in defense of an independent judiciary, so we joined it.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.