Ideas to Challenge and Inspire...

As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist I am interested in human behavior: in who we are, why we behave the way we do, and how we can build a commonsense, sustainable future. For example, if we have learned anything from the financial excesses of these last years—from Enron to Madoff—it is surely that human greed is alive and well. At first it was easy to dismiss the recurrent market madness as something American, driven by hubris and hegemony. Now in the aftermath of the ruptured housing bubble and the financial seizure that it has provoked not only across the Anglo-Saxon world but also Europe and beyond, the answer no longer seems so simple. What were we thinking? Looking back it defies common sense to believe that any economic system, but particularly a globalized market economy, could indefinitely sustain itself on debt and speculation. And yet, as I described in a recent article in The Chronicle Review, that was essentially the modus operandi that has brought us to this place of global strain.

Peter C Whybrow, Photograph by Anna Wirz-JusticePhotograph by Anna Wirz-Justice, Basel

Now, amidst the wreckage of sub-prime mortgages, easy money and an uncertain environmental future, we find ourselves in a self-reflective mood. It’s an opportunity to be seized, a time to return to commonsense thinking, and to accept the growing evidence that in our acquisitive striving we have created a lethal mismatch between our habitat and who we are. When surrounded by our man-made wizardry it is easy to forget that as a species we are evolved creatures of the natural world. While we strive to shape the environment to our preference, over millennia it is we who have been shaped to the specifications of the planet’s demand. Whether we like it or not, in much of what we think, feel and do we march to ancient drummers.

In my last book, American Mania: When More Is Not Enough (WW Norton, 2005) I explored from a neuroscience and behavioral perspective the stress, obesity, anxiety and time urgency that are associated with a materially rich, demand driven lifestyle. I am now engaged in thinking through how we might begin to repair the damage, working on a new book tentatively entitled The Intuitive Mind: Common Sense for the Common Good, again to be published by WW Norton.

I believe a broad ranging and open public discussion is now emerging. How can human creativity and intuition help resolve the challenges we face not only through new technologies but also through a better understanding of what drives human behavior? What is it about the way our brains are wired that makes the risk and competition of the market place so compelling? Why is it that novelty and material goods so hold our fascination that we have yielded up our responsibilities as citizens to become unquestioning consumers? And what will it take to constructively re-channel that energy toward a creativity that better serves the common good? If we confront such questions together then new ideas will emerge and they will challenge and inspire...

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