History is about behavior. Mainly human behavior but some animal behavior as well. Behavior is caused by the brain. You are among the first generation to start to understand how the brain causes behavior. We will always be the first generation in human history to start to understand what really, physiologically, causes behavior. In 50, 500 and 5000 years, we will ALWAYS be the first generation to discover how the brain causes behavior, in humans and other animals.
Historian study behavior. The brain cause behavior. You would think historians would be eagerly combining their expertise in behavior, across the millennia, with the insights from brain science on what causes behavior. The opposite is true.
Predictably, because the human brain (and likely all animal brains) is inherently conservative and rejecting of new ideas, historians, along with pretty much everyone else in other academic and knowledge disciplines, not only is ignoring the insights and remarkable findings of brain science but is proudly denying and avoiding anything to do with brain and behavioral science. Inertia rules the human brain and moving an object at rest is pretty much impossible. Historians brains are at rest.
This essay won’t check off examples of historians denying avoiding or dissociating new brain and behavioral knowledge but, instead, let’s imagine how brain science might be used to help historians solve problems and help inform people who study history to solve problems. Let’s start with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, shall we? (Always a clever, “opener” question at a dinner party or dance club!)
Things Fall Apart
Vienna at the turn of the century was much like modern America, and the global challenges from multiculturalism. There was alternately brilliance and then millions of people starved to death, cannibalism and women and children, mainly Jewish, shot in the back of the head and dumped into ditches i the woods outside of the villages in Poland and the Ukraine, where they and their ancestors had lived for generations.
The drama was unparalleled and the abject worst in human behavior. The central thread is human behavior. Of course, the behavior of leaders and politicians and government and industrial and military leaders, but alos the behavior of millions of ordinary people and neighbors. Ordinary people and neighbors who stole from and brutality tortured and murdered their neighbors many of who were women and children. It is estimated 11 millions people killed by the behavior of ordinary people and neighbors.
A very few of the people in pre-Nazi Vienna, were the opposite of stealing, torturing, murdering and mass starving their neighbors and civilians in the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. These intellectuals, academics, artists, successful entrepreneurs were primarily Jewish and formed the basis for Post-War American culture, success and brilliance and much of the same in countries they fled to.
These are dry facts now and the new history of WWII is hard-headed and coldly calculating of the institutionalized saveragy. Savaveragy that was gladly embraced by everyday folks and government functionaries, enjoyed at the time and never regreted or the cause of shame or remorse.
The point here is not to focus on the beastiality of human behavior and actions although that is a lesson that can never be fully learned. Each generation needs to relearn it, also. But to point out the central problem brain science poses, now to historians, and any professional, academic or other kind of professional, who’s work involves human behavior – how do we understand and explain this behavior? How do we explain and understand ANY behavior? Be we historians, novelists, playwrites, business executive, accountants, engineers, or government policy makers? Hmmmm? A truly pregnant question!
But, let’s stick with historians and the behavior around the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, shall we?
Biting Off More Than We Can Ever Chew
We don’t have any answers. But with any advanced, and new technical knowledge, and brain science is the MOST advanced new technical knowledge, good questions are the starting point.