‘Oh my God primal instincts in action!’ was what I was thinking on a recent return train journey to Leeds from London, when I was observing a female train crew member at work.
I had been delivering a master-class on ‘Neuro-equality’ (something that the National Centre for Diversity has pioneered), so having spent all day thinking about the content, neuroscience was at the forefront of my thoughts. That is why I found the words and demeanour of the woman towards the passengers so fascinating. What was even more fascinating was how the passengers, particularly the men were responding to her. She had them eating out of the palm of her hand.
Why is that particular experience relevant? Well, I’ll get to that a bit later.
Having researched neuroscience over several years it has been a phenomenal journey of self-discovery and insights into how the world works.
For me, recent discoveries around neuroscience are the most important discoveries of my lifetime. They are changing the way that the world works, and how people understand how it works.
The more I read books by experts in this field, the more fascinating it becomes, but one consideration that constantly pops into my mind is the importance of the brain’s evolution in determining how we think and what we do. That one consideration is our survival instincts.
According to neuroscientists, the brain’s capacity in primitive days was pretty much all about keeping us alive. People who were different or unfamiliar were seen with suspicion or as a danger. Our brains were tuned into hunting for food, protecting our kin and ourselves. That was just about it. The ability to think in an intelligent way was severely limited. Algebra and algorithms would have been beyond comprehension even if they had existed back then.
The ability to communicate was limited and life expectancy was about 20 years. Existence centred on survival and procreation. We honed our skills and primal instincts were largely survival instincts.
In this primitive world getting things wrong could often lead to death and a nasty one at that.
People did understand that if they joined forces they had more chance of survival ie 100 people fighting together against the sabre tooth tiger had a far greater chance of survival than one man, and so came the need to band together in tribes and groups. Each group had its own dynamics, their own leaders and leadership styles. Socialisation was a survival issue.
Certainty about people inside and out of your tribe and your importance in that tribe (where you were in the hierarchy) decided whether you received a share of the food from the hunt or no food for you and your kin. Certainty is what the brain craved in arguably the most uncertain era of human history and today we still crave certainty.
Gender roles were binary and were a big thing back then. Men were tough or they died early. Men killed, hunted, defended and provided. Women built a home, cooked and nurtured. It was a black and white world. Early man craved certainty and simplicity. The capacity to think rationally and analytically was extremely limited.
Instincts were the things that came most easily. Our brains were much less capable back then than they are today. A good analogy is if you think of their brains as being computer operating systems, then they were operating on Microsoft Windows 1 in a world where Windows 1 was pretty much all they could deal with.
In today’s world our brains are still operating at a level equivalent to Windows 1 or 2, when we should be operating at Windows 100 plus. In today’s world of complexity binary notions of race, gender, gender roles and sexual orientation are being challenged and are changing at arguably the fastest pace in human history.
The problem is our brains, specifically our primal instincts, have not caught up and our instincts, emotions and habits are fighting and winning the battle to overcome our dominant primal instincts.
That is why it’s very difficult to see an Asian man in the street as just a man and not an Asian man. It is why we see a female fire fighter not as just a fire fighter but as a female fire fighter.
It is why we (both women and men included) criticise female news readers for their dress sense and appearance. It is why we (both women and men included) accuse assertive female bosses of being bossy rather than assertive, as we would perhaps do if men behave that way.
It’s why we (both women and men included) get upset when a female manager adopts a macho style of management, as opposed to a nurturing one. It is why many women and men equally find this problematic. It is difficult for our brains to compute. It is why the pet names like ‘love’, ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’ are used every day in workplaces by well-meaning men and women and have an endearing effect – as long as they are not used in a patronising and condescending way.
Used properly these words can have a powerful effect and the lady on the train knew from knowledge and experience that if she acted in a motherly way and made comments such as “Oh you boys are doing so well you haven’t made the slightest bit of mess.” “Oh thank you love”. And “Yes darling” that it had a really positive effect on the people in that coach of the train. She tapped in to our natures and we couldn’t do enough for her.
We as passengers wanted to please her. Her behaviour was maternal and feminine – probably not at all politically correct but we didn’t care, we all warmed to her. She wouldn’t know it but she had tapped into our base instincts and we loved her for it. There was a comfort and certainty about it. She was taking up a traditional gender role. She was acting ‘Motherly’ calling us ‘boys’ and congratulating us and calling us very helpful and treating us like boys. So, she tapped into our old brain understanding of the world.
Human brains haven’t sufficiently evolved in the last 50 years to be fit for purpose for the modern world. Gender roles are changing at a faster pace than we can make sense of, hence the gender pay gap, female under-representation in leadership or management, institutionalised sexism and sexist behaviours by men and women. Add to the debate a whole new debate about gender-neutrality: gender-neutral clothing and gender-neutral schools then uncertainty levels rise and there is a natural push back. This is also the case in terms of sexual orientation, transgender and mixed race.
But this cannot be used as an excuse. The brain is very good at creating new circuitry and people find new ways of working, thinking and seeing things through new perspectives. It’s at times of high stress that we default to our primal instincts. The good news though is that if we know all this then we can work at it and get better at it, until the point of human evolution at which the new world becomes our reality.