Aggression, Brain Circuits, & Civilizing Processes

Throughout The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker writes about the process of humans becoming less violent by describing humans as engaging in civilizing processes. Over time humans have developed social norms, institutions, and processes that have made us more civilized and less violent. We organize our social worlds in ways that reward patience, consideration of others, and restraint from violent and aggressive outbursts. Our civilizing processes have pushed back against many instinctive responses that are common across mammals.
“Biologists have long noted that the mammalian brain has distinct circuits that underlie very different kinds of aggression,” writes Pinker. In many situations mammals (which we are as humans of course) will act out aggressively. There are multiple brain systems and pathways that will drive aggression – fear, self defense, preservation of resources. Pinker stresses that there is not just one violent, aggressive, or animalistic circuit or pathway in our brains, there are multiple which can be activated by different factors.
Pinker continues, “one of the oldest discoveries in the biology of violence is the link between pain or frustration and aggression. When an animal is shocked, or access to food is taken away, it will attack the nearest fellow animal, or bite an inanimate object if no living target is available.” Brain circuits related to aggression are fast and non-discriminating. They will activate and direct aggression to anything that is close by – as many of us who have kicked a printer or thrown a TV remote know first hand.
So how have humans been able to become more peaceful over time when we have a variety of fast acting brain circuits which will trigger violent outbursts in response to a host of different factors? Pinker writes, “the neuroanatomy suggests that in Homo sapiens primitive impulses of rage, fear, and craving must contend with the cerebral restraints of prudence, moralization, and self-control.” In other words, humans have pursued civilizing processes that make aggression more costly, create institutions which reduce some factors that prime violence, and reward humans for practicing self-control rather than impulsive behaviors. As Pinker describes civilizing processes throughout the book, some processes are individual, requiring the individual to behave in more peaceful and sanitary ways. Some processes are institutional, creating rewards for civil behavior and punishments for less civil behavior. We actively shape a world that addresses the multiple pathways for aggression in the brain and works against those pathways so that they activate less frequently and are punished when they do activate. This is the heart of the civilizing processes which have driven down violence in human society throughout human history.

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