In his book, The social neuroscience of education, Louis Cozolino describes the brain as a ‘social organ’ that has evolved “to be linked to and learn from other brains in the context of emotionally significant relationships…the brain has evolved to learn within a naturalistic setting in the context of meaningful group and interpersonal interactions”. Our brains “reside within…an interwoven matrix of relationships that are guided by the realities of day-to-day survival”. We are, at the very core of our humanity, a relational and social species. We are shaped and formed, grow and develop in a web of relationality and connection.

Cozolino points out that for 100,000 years humans evolved in small tribal communities characterised by co-operation, bonding and family relationships through the sharing of knowledge and common rituals. The interdependent nature of these societies meant that individual brains evolved into a “nexus of social connectivity” shaping the tribe into ‘functioning macroorganisms’.

These tribal communities still in existence and studied today are shaped by “co-operation, equality and servant-based leadership”. This co-operation emerges out of a sense of kinship and common interest. Equality and fairness make each member feel valued and help nurture a deeper commitment to the tribe. Leadership in these societies is not inherited but earned through demonstration of skill and ability in service of the well-being of the group as a whole.

By contrast, industrial societies base leadership on competition, individual success, and “authority based on discipline, obedience and power over others”. Modern social organisation is based hierarchies which breed inequality and dominance.

A story illustrates these different approaches to social organisation:

A parable tells the story of 4 towns. In each town, people were starving to death. Each town had a bag of seeds.

In the first town, no one knew what seeds could do. No one knew how to plant them. Everyone starved.

In the second town, one person knew what seeds were and how
to plant them, but did nothing about it for one reason or another.
Everyone starved.

In the third town, one person knew what seeds were and how to plant them. He proposed to plant them in exchange for being declared the king or ruler. All ate, but were ruled.

In the fourth town, one person knew what seeds were and how to plant them. He not only planted the seeds, but taught everyone the art of gardening. All ate, and all were free and empowered.

The third town sounds close to our modern social structures while the fourth seems to reflect more traditional tribal structures.

Cozolino points out that while western culture has changed a great deal over the last 5000 years, the brain remains essentially the same. “It is possible that a good deal of the anxiety and depression so common in modern society may be partly explained by the alienation of our tribal brains from our historical social environment”, writes Cozolino. Those who do best in modern societies tend to be those who find a substitute for tribal life: Belonging to a church, sports teams, clubs. Even gangs can be understood as a desire to re-create the tribal structure and the sense of belonging and connection that comes with it.

There seems then to be a mismatch between our biological hardware and the cultural context in which we currently live. Our brains evolved in environments with social structures very different to the ones that exist now. This discrepancy creates problems because many of our current social structures based on hierarchies and division do not fulfil our human needs for connection and meaningful relational engagement.

“Relationships are our natural habitat”, is Cozolino’s frequent refrain. “Without mutually stimulating interactions, people (and neurons for the matter) wither and die”. This manifests as a general failure to thrive or flourish, depression and even dying from a broken heart or loneliness. What proportion of daily social interactions today might be described as stimulating or nurturing? One would suspect that a high proportion of interactions in work, education, and even leisure contexts fall short of this mark.

Cozolino outlines what amounts to a fairly simple formula for a life well lived: “From birth until death, each of us needs others to seek out, show interest in discovering who we are, and help us to feel safe. We all yearn to be understood, recognised, and appreciated. Regardless of age, it is vital for us to feel a part of, participate in, and contribute to our ‘tribe’. The inabilities to connect, contribute to others, love, and be loved result in anxiety, depression and alienation”.

It is likely that “the most viable tribes were more egalitarian, flexible and inclusive” which would lead to a maximisation of the contributions of the different members. Leadership and respect would be earned through merit – displaying fairness, generosity and attention to the other members within the tribe. In this way the tribe controls their leaders because power “is not inherited or assigned but earned through service to others”. Our current social structures and their inherent hierarchies and inequalities are waste human potential because they serve to deny the creativity and contributions of those on lower rungs, who then feel disenfranchised and so disengage.

Teaching in these tribal societies is generally performed by “biologically related, caring, and deeply invested elders, one on one or in small groups”. Cozolino refers to these as “naturally occurring, attachment-based apprenticeships” where “learning is interwoven with the behaviours and biochemistry of bonding”. Teachers and students are “bound together in affection, kinship, and mutual survival”. Teachers in tribes are most likely ‘elected’ because others gravitated towards them based on what they had to offer.

This contrasts sharply with modern educational institutions based on the factory model and standardised learning and assessment. While tribal cultures offered an atmosphere of care, modern classrooms are so often devoid of warm interpersonal relations. With a curriculum to deliver the focus tends to be more on content (subject matter), rather than context (the social field of nurturing relationships).

In modern societies equality, writes Cozolino, is replaced with “dominance hierarchies based on discipline, obedience, and a lack of concern for fairness” which “trigger stress in a brain shaped by the biochemistry of attachment and primitive social instincts…The tribal values of mutual respect, cooperation, and caring that shaped our social brain have been largely factored out of the cultural equation”.

Cozolino speaks of the ‘tribal classroom’ where “fostering bonding, attachment, and group cohesion is seen as the foundation for learning”. It would be a culture based on “democratic leadership, cooperation, group cohesion, equality, fairness, trust, and strong personal relationships”. Our modern social structures stand in sharp contrast to these environments which shaped the brain and this discrepancy may be at the heart of much of the suffering in society. The hierarchies, inequalities and competition that characterise our social systems, rather than facilitating human growth and flourishing would appear to be actually creating fragmentation within society and alienation within individuals.