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The rise of neuropsychology, and how it can redefine liberal progressivism

The crisis of liberalism and progressivism is shaking the very foundations of Modernity. Our ability to imagine and build a collective future is under threat. The rise of neuroscience, and more specifically neuropsychology, can help us “relaunch” our societies.

June 2017
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Executive Summary

Liberalism is based on concepts of universal individual rights. Progressivism is based on the idea that science and technology will improve society, if not constantly, at least regularly and sustainably. These two ideologies have shaped the entire history of modernity. But today, both are facing a deep crisis.

On the one hand, we are witnessing the rise of “illiberal” policies as well as new forms of authoritarian populism. On the other, we have a complex relationship with scientific and technical progress: its consequences raise serious concerns, and the great comeback of religious issues fuels an astonishing rise of “relativist” discourses... From the “intelligent design” of American creationists to the idea supported by several groups worldwide that the Earth is flat!

This crisis can be interpreted as a new battle, under the banner of modern ideals, against the constantly resurgent threat of intellectual and political regression.

It can also be analyzed as a symptom of the exhaustion of all previous progressive and liberal models. Hence, the question arises differently: how can we revitalize them?

In the emerging framework of “knowledge society” and in the context of demographic transition whose full implications have not yet been addressed, two elements can help us rethink these two pillars of modernity.

First, the revolution in the access to knowledge made possible by the Internet. Second, the rise of neuroscience and, more particularly, of neuropsychology. Both pave the way for a redefinition of human capabilities and, therefore, for a new representation of what individual emancipation and development may expect. The impact of the Internet has already generated many reflections. In this paper, we will focus on the contributions of neuropsychology.

Human capacities according to neuropsychology and neurosciences

Neuropsychology is a medical science whose recent development is due to the progress of neuroscience. Wittgenstein conceptualized its philosophical principles by criticizing and surpassing the philosophies of Bacon and Descartes. He famously wrote in 1949: “But if a way were now found of seeing his nerves working, wouldn’t that really be a means of finding whether he is in pain? Well, it could give a new direction to the way we behave and could also correspond more or less with the old directions.” Today, it is possible to visualize the partial differentiation of neuronal networks of physical pain and emotional pain and this has altered our therapeutic behaviors.

Neuropsychology, in connection with the development of neurosciences, has categorized human capacities into:

Executive functions : ability to plan, correct, modify and stop actions. Executive functions are at the source of innovation, creativity and project-oriented actions. Some researchers distinguish cognitive and emotional executive functions.

Empathy: awareness of the feelings of others. This ability is at the basis of our moral sense. In contemporary networking environments with multiple stakeholders, empathy is recognized as a leading ability, especially in the professional world, but also in increasingly complex social interactions. Our environment is made of dematerialized exchanges, where the absence of physical presence prevents us from “reading” correctly the emotions of our counterparts and correspondents.

Theory of mind: ability to infer thoughts of others, necessary for social interactions (lacking, for example, in autism).

Cerebral plasticity : another recent advance in neuroscience, which can change our behavior, is the discovery of important capabilities of cerebral plasticity. Cerebral plasticity, through the development of new neuronal networks and the genesis of new neurons, allows, under certain conditions, to acquire, adapt and recover intellectual (cognitive) and emotional capacities lifelong.

Developmental psychology is already beginning to mobilize these categories to develop new innovative methods or to reformulate classical conceptions of learning. Stanislas Dehaene, professor at the Collège de France (PSL Research University), defines four “pillars” of learning, which can serve as foundation of a much more effective pedagogy: “attention, a filter that one must learn to captivate and channel; active engagement (a passive organization doesn’t learn); feedback (error is human but also... necessary); consolidation of gains.” Based on these principles, “cognitive science has an enormous potential if one learns to take advantage of its teachings regarding the human brain at the beginning of life and transposes all this corpus of knowledge.”

The promises of digital technology and the “age of access” are therefore complemented by those of neurosciences and their derivatives. Is it a question of changing man, as dreamed of by the advocates of transhumanism? Or, more wisely, to allow mankind to cultivate their possibilities better than it was able up to know.

A new form of progressivism

Starting from this new representation of human capacities, which concerns both individuals and society in general, we can sketch the outlines of a new form of progressivism based on the individual improvement of cognitive, emotional and social skills, oriented towards the greater good of society.

In the course of human evolution, technical and cultural achievements and their transmission from generation to generation have driven the evolution of executive capacities. Today, it would be possible to allow and to propose to each person to realize the full potential of their capabilities for action and innovation and their human qualities, associating them with the acquisition of knowledge, at all moments of their life and in all situations.

This can also be considered in terms of development or “rehabilitation.”

The development of executive capacities, empathy and social interaction can be acquired through individualized and voluntarily accepted methods of education, as well as rehabilitation. It isn’t only a question of education, but also of a methodical and individualized deepening of human capacities, which are both universally and unequally distributed. Egalitarianism has no meaning here. Whereas the promise of self-development made to each person does. It contributes to rebuilding a sense of the future, one that our contemporaries lack of, paralyzed by their fear of tomorrow. It could also form the basis of a new right.

The possibility for all individuals to develop their cognitive, emotional and social interaction skills could be considered as a universal right and indeed, even as a basis for all their other rights.

This is not without consequences, since the organization of public policies is viewed from this new framework. These possibilities could be implemented at the core of government duties, with possible variations regarding the rights and duties of individuals to fulfill this mission. For example, each individual could accept to learn within the limits of their possibilities.

This right could also lead to the development of policies of social “remediation”. In a recent book titled Men without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis (2016), Nicholas Eberstadt expressed alarm at the increase of the number of young men who will never enter the labor market (approximately 10% of working aged men, not counted in US unemployment statistics) since the 1960s. As it is conceived today, social assistance is far from remedying this situation. Assistance for the rehabilitation of executive functions i.e. the support to rehabilitate one’s individual talents, can be considered as a right. It is enough to wander in a city to realize the magnitude of the problem and the ineffectiveness of  current social policies

Finding a place in the knowledge society

In addition to the knowledge revolution in neuroscience, the development of the Internet has granted all mankind with an access to the entire knowledge of the world while social networks promote a widespread connection between humans. But this universal access and connection also has its reverse. What happens to those who are incapable of benefiting from it because they lack the necessary cognitive or emotional resources?

Moreover, we can see how the “age of access” (Jeremy Rifkin) is also that of the polarization of opinions, of confinement in certainties and communities of belief.

Therefore, these developments question the society’s means to move forward, towards a better future. The conjunction of individual capacities and universal access to knowledge can offer remarkable prospects, provided that two drifts are avoided. The first is to continue to believe that the progress of societies cannot be led by the only “official” custodians of knowledge i.e. graduates. The second is to take for granted the possibility for all to participate actively in knowledge society. On the contrary, there is an urgent need to “revitalize” society, empower cognitively those who haven’t found their place yet, or worse, breed new forms of alienations, for example, this mix of naive certainties and systematic doubts that characterizes conspirationists.

By combining the revolution in the dissemination of knowledge with the possibility of optimizing neuropsychological capacities in an individual way, we can revivify the concept of liberal progressivism and infuse a new meaning into it, opening a new horizon that will allow everyone to find their place – an active one – within knowledge society.

The digital promise, combined with the fight against its denaturation, offers a horizon of progress and new perspectives to liberalism conceived as confidence in the individual. The rise of neuropsychology offers tools to revitalize the individual and contribute to social equity, previously threatened by the digital divide.

In order to fulfill this promise, we must reconsider the way society builds its future and improves the fate of its members.

Already half a century ago, Father Wresinski, founder of ATD-Quart-Monde, firmly condemned top-down social policies, denouncing their deleterious effects on individuals deprived of all sense of responsibility – and even humiliated. A collective effort to rebuild individual capabilities offers a radically reverse perspective, by initiating a bottom up movement in society.

This type of liberal progressivism justifies and requires fundamental reforms of social educational and health organizations, taking economic needs into account, in the hope of societal progress. The GDP of a country is correlated with its economic status but also with the cultural level, health and social condition of its population. Thanks to the advances of neuroscience and new digital technologies, it should be possible to evolve from the welfare state to empathic, solidary and empowering societies, ultimately redefining the principles of economic and social redistribution.

Dominique Champon
Geriatric Physician