21 October 2019

Politicians could use a lesson in neuroscience


“Daddy, Daddy.  Can we clean your car?”My then three and five-year-olds came bouncing up full of enthusiasm.

“How much?”I asked.

“£1”.   Their opening offer.

50p.   My counter offer.


And off they set. Dropping the sponge in the gravel and scouring the paintwork. A few minutes later they were finished, with my car in a worse state than before.  They presented themselves delighted with their accomplishment, and handed me a fifty pence piece.

The point of the story is not to reveal my failings as a father, but to widen the concept of work and reward. Start-up, entrepreneurship, patents. This is my world and I’m not bad at it.  Another part of my life is medicine. And one of the biggest harms I see is passivity and a lack of a sense of contribution. Labour and Conservatives argue endlessly on the axis of money (to varying extents) and miss this alternative axis.

When I’m asked about entrepreneurship, people are expecting the latest high science, novel drug targets or artificial intelligence opportunity. To drive these forward and exploit new opportunities requires a set of things – people, money and a big dollop of luck. The freedom of this experiment is capitalism’s great success.

Yet my favourite enterprise of late has been some 70-year-olds near me who set up a lunch club at the parish hall for those even older. Those too infirm to walk are transported. It has grown to 50 diners and achieves several things, not least combating loneliness. Is this novel? No. Inventive? No. Enterprising?  Absolutely. And also reproduceable.

Such initiatives don’t register in GDP figures and can even come in for criticism for offering a service that some claim should be provided by the state. It’s a difficult one.We need safety nets, but not ones that creates passivity and inhibits community and meaningful interactions.

There are trade-offs with everything. How best to use the resources of people and money. How would those currently done to rather than engaged with decide?  Some might focus money on local infrastructure, others on people and services.  Politicians who think it is purely about money and end points fail to understand core human needs.

The process of doing, of moving successfully towards a shared goal, is biologically more pleasurable than passively being given the end goal. Working cooperatively in a group is hard wired into our psyche, because the loner that didn’t would have been outcompeted by other tribes.

The part of the brain in which our basic drives reside, where the states of well-being and contentedness arise, has not changed for millions of years.  Our brain develops from inside out and is better considered as being like a tree than a modular Lego kit. The trunk of the tree is shared with other animals, the outer branches are what have evolved recently and provide human differentiation.

It is within the trunk, not the outer branches, that the core chemical systems of motivation reside and also where antidepressants act. One key chemical is dopamine which drives us towards a goal and makes us feel good. Forces which motivate group cooperation are similarly ‘old brain’.

There are also brain processes for disengagement from unachievable goals which would otherwise waste energy. The specific goals will be time and society dependent, although strongly coloured by the fundamental needs of food, group inclusion and structure, shelter and protection. The brain cannot be pre-programmed for 2019 Britain, 1780 France or 10,000 years ago, but the brain chemicals released are exactly the same.

Passively being given the end goal is an unusual modern day phenomenon that short-circuits these processes. The pleasure is brief. Government could give everyone an iphone 12, but that won’t shift our record high mental health problems at all. Furthermore, externally imposed goals from society are a key cause of modern misery, as the perceived failure to be making progress to these goals, as computed by the brain, induces the ‘adaptive’ brain response of low mood.

From a policy perspective this matters because we can unwittingly cause harm by focusing on the end state, rather than the process for getting there. Money is a wonderful invention, but there is no money centre in the brain. It piggybacks onto other mechanisms. Similarly, a distant state which automatically imposes the way things should be, even if this end state is indeed ‘right’ and desirable,  potentially deprives individuals of the positive feelings of cooperation and reciprocity.

Technological advancement might allow ready meals to be delivered by a drone for the elderly and gardening to be done by robots,  but both are backward steps on the passive-active axis which matters, because we can’t change the way our brains work. It is this axis that needs the encouragement, to rekindle the entrepreneur, the exploring, doing, cooperative human in us all.

Dr Paul Goldsmith is President of Closed Loop Medicine, a clinician and a fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies