• Behaviour

May, BREXIT and the Human Brain

A neuroscience perspective on Theresa May’s approach to the BREXIT negotiations

Friday 03 August 2018


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The human brain is wired to scan for threat and danger before all else. The fast-acting, pre-conscious limbic system is the ancient part of our brain that keeps a constantly vigilant eye out for our safety. For good reason, therefore, our natural state is one of watchful anxiety. This evolutionary force means that in the absence of information we are more likely to fear the worst. In recent years developments in the mapping of brain response have allowed us to begin to quantify these responses and to understand how they relate to behaviour. Applying this thinking to the BREXIT negotiations leads to what I hope is an interesting perspective on the current furore. 

Theresa May is unfortunately, mismanaging the limbic mood of the nation at present in a way that is dangerous for her leadership and for the country’s future. She is leaving us in an emotional vacuum where we are too often left wondering what is going on. She is not containing the collective limbic anxiety. Our collective uncontained emotion is a dangerous force in the world.

She leads the country at the most precarious time in its post war history. Negotiating a BREXIT deal is one of the most vexing challenges any leader could face. Like the majority of the big challenges we confront as a human species (Security of a low carbon energy supply, controlling climate change, managing population growth, biodiversity, health of an ageing population) a way forward requires the attention of many good brains.

A change as profound as BREXIT demands proper reflection time, deep consideration and genuine exploration. BREXIT is not a problem that can be solved by command and control leadership. The way forward will require trust and careful conversation as a new way of being in the world is negotiated. Yet the limbic anxiety is demanding to be soothed.

Theresa May needs to manage our collective emotions by letting the nation know that she and some very good brains are thinking very hard about all of the issues involved. It is the silence about the thinking process that is stoking negative emotion. It is the silence about the process that is stoking a seeming need for a more command and control stance. Wanting command and control is a dangerous modern phenomenon.

We collectively insist on a risk-free environment and simultaneously resent the processes put in place to achieve it. Anxiety feeds anxiety in a tight and dangerous loop.

Theresa May is I suspect an introvert. She likes to reflect and think before she ‘does’. She does not readily show her emotions. This has caught her out several times not least in relation to Grenfell Tower. Emotional connection and revelation is less easy for the introverted brain than the extroverted brain. Theresa May is also a female leader, so whilst tough and resilient and able to compete she is also taking her power in a more collaborative consultative way than her male predecessor or the recent group of men who have resigned from her cabinet. Command and control is not her style. She is seeking to consult, create the thinking forum for ideas and to build enough consensus to generate forward momentum. This is often perceived as weakness by extrovert colleagues and observers seeking simple and immediate solutions. This is not inevitable. It is possible to foster a secure state of mind within which genuine creative discussion can thrive.

Creating limbic containment and communicating strongly about it so that the nation can relax and engage in supporting the quality of thinking is vital at the current time. Theresa May needs to share much more much more frequently about the process that is going on at many levels of government and beyond. She would do well to stand up and share and show the difference in the way she takes her power. A new kind of thinking together is the only way that we will solve for BREXIT and the other challenges we face that will dwarf the European issue.

Containing the anxiety through communication about the thinking process is critical and the time to do it is now.

This article was written by Kate Lanz, in collaboration with Professor Nic Harrison, co director of the Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering head of the Computational Materials Science Group in the Department of Chemistry, Imperial College London. 

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