Up Front 11/19

A very wealthy businessman once told me that inside all highly successful self-made businessmen and women lurked a ‘sliver of razored ice’. He claimed that it helped them to overcome any pangs of emotion or conscience that might interrupt their drive to succeed. As far as he was concerned, it was the key element that had helped him to make millions of pounds over his career. Considering the thousands of neurological and psychological studies done to try to understand why some people follow their conscience more than others, it may have been a simplistic description, but the ‘ice’ in the heart is a powerful image just the same. Despite his simple characterisation, we do appear to be living in an age that favours material gain over social community, and many say that the potential for an equitable and therefore more sophisticated society is looking harder to achieve. But according to research published by psychologists from the University of Würzburg and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, all may not be lost. They have confirmed that mental training can effectively cultivate care, compassion and even altruistically motivated behaviour. They believe that what they call “prosocial behaviour” is at the heart of peaceful societies and is, therefore, a key to facing global challenges, whether dealing with climate change and its consequences; the refugee crisis or the unfair distribution of wealth. Anyone who has benefitted from hypnotherapy or cognitive behaviour therapy will be familiar with the theory that humans have the ability to change their habits. I’ve been an ex-smoker for nearly twenty years thanks to hypnotherapy and I can vouch for the benefits that can be achieved by sensitive and cooperative manipulation of the subconscious. To test their theories, the scientists ran meditation-based mental training in socio-affective skills such as compassion, gratitude, and prosocial motivation. It turned out that, after the practices, participants were more generous, more willing to help spontaneously and donated higher amounts to welfare organisations. Many decades ago we might have imagined a 1984 scenario with mass brain-washing. But according to the scientists, cultivating these effective and motivational capacities in schools, healthcare settings and workplaces may be a useful step towards meeting the challenges of a globalised world and moving us towards global cooperation and a more caring society.