Investing in the brain...to strengthen democracy

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  • Education
  • Mental health
  • Health & wellbeing

In a world economy dominated by intangible assets, intellectual capital and innovative practices, our economic prosperity and security needs the best knowledge workers. A new paper* argues building brain infrastructure at national level is crucial, and promotes wellbeing, dynamism, creativity and resilience in the population. One of the authors, Harris A Eyre, argues we have a huge, unexploited resource

In our Brookings Policy Paper Brief, Combatting America’s Crisis of Despair by Investing in Brains, we suggested placing our brains (our most powerful asset) at the centre of policymaking. Here, we go further and suggest doing so can also strengthen democracy. We studied the United States, but there are lessons here for all countries.

 A fundamental requirement of a functioning democracy is an educated citizenry to engage, assess and collaborate, in order to expand development options for themselves and others. Democracy is a form of self-governance that expands options by learning from and responding to knowledge.

Thriving democracies are those that strive to assure equality, social mobility, freedom from corruption and fear. They thrive with fewer limitations on freedom, creating circumstances in which anything seems possible. By contrast, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, which constrain and forcibly channel human potential, also tend to channel and constrain knowledge.

Citizens in thriving democracies, and their countries, benefit from the mental, emotional, and cognitive capacities required to be educated, motivated and creative. To achieve this, we need quality mental and brain health screening, detection and care, and for it to be available to all. Investing in the next generation of personalised screening, diagnosis and treatment will reduce the burden of disorders and increase brain skills such as critical thinking, resourcefulness and adaptability. All of this is paramount in boosting economic productivity and dynamism – essential components in democratic societies.

To build and sustain democratic systems in a rapidly changing, increasingly complex and globally inter-connected world, we need to invest in citizens' capacities and capabilities from an early age and through life, improve access to credible and independent sources of information and ensure citizen engagement and participation. So how do we get there?

First, we must focus on early brain and child development. The brains of children house the minds of the future. Building high-potential brains at the very earliest stage of life may be the best way to empower our societies and children to both create and navigate future challenges. Complex issues affecting societies today will only grow as our children get older. But if we reduce child poverty, provide universal pre-kindergarten care and set up a national paid leave program (an area where the United States lags much of the world), we would hugely boost brain development.

How do we measure the extent of America’s psychological damage? Deaths of despair (suicide and poisoning by alcohol and drugs) may be one indicator. They are now so common that they are lowering US life expectancy. Despair in American society is a barrier to collaboration and engagement in politics to solve societal problems, and leads to a politics limited to the expression of grievance and outrage.

This is exacerbated by misinformation, which polarises and weakens societies. Many people became cynical, and in some countries, demagogic politicians radicalise the disaffected. A polluted information environment confuses individuals and destabilises democracies. Critical thinking is essential in neutralising misinformation. Cognitive immunologists are giving us a scientific understanding of why some minds fight off mind-infections, and why others fail to. They are learning what healthy mental immune response looks like and discovering ways to strengthen these systems.

It's crucial, because these things block civic engagement, jeopardising the democracy and institutions on which our national security and wellbeing relies. Desperate individuals with no viable pathway for the future (and without the means to pursue purposeful and productive activity in the present) are particularly vulnerable to feeling aggrieved. They are also prey to the corresponding conspiracy theories, fake news, and foreign-adversary brainwashing campaigns that recruit people to extremist activities.

Meanwhile, the provision of quality and accessible mental and brain health care is a demonstration of respect for human rights and can help support a more constructive and participatory engagement in democratic institutions. But our current approaches to dealing with these issues are siloed and insufficient. And because these issues cut across academic disciplines, policy areas, and sectors of government, they typically fall through the cracks.

So how do we start to identify the problems that need to be fixed? First, we need to assess the health and brain health of our societies. A convergence of indicators may be useful to determine the vitality of our national ‘brain infrastructure strength’. We have a Media Literacy Index, a Human Capital Index, and a Better Life Index and many other policy-relevant metrics to measure educational attainment and healthcare quality and access. Identification of brain infrastructure weak spots will help liberal democracies develop wide-ranging, lifespan, cross-sector brain agendas. This is critical to societies sustaining themselves into the mid-21st century by promoting good governance and reducing national security challenges.

Investing in brains and the science we need to understand them ensures democracies can compete effectively against near-peer competitors. Competitors are increasing their output of science, technology, engineering and maths university graduates, and investing heavily in cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence. It’s a pressing challenge. But the futures of our countries and our citizens can be strong and secure if we choose to develop and exploit our greatest untapped resource: our brains and those of future generations. We must therefore democratise brain science and health.

This paper was co-authored by:

  • Harris A. Eyre MD PhD. Co-lead of the OECD-PRODEO Institute Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative (NIPI), Senior Fellow for Brain Capital with the Meadows Institute, Instructor with the Global Brain Health Institute and Adjunct Associate Professor with IMPACT at Deakin University.
  • Virginia Bennett. Former US State Department official, most recently serving as Acting Assistant Secretary of State and Principal Deputy for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
  • Sebastian F. Winter MD PhD. A physician-scientist, social entrepreneur, and health policy analyst, he trains in neurology at the Charité University Hospital Berlin, Germany, and conducts postdoctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA.
  • Michael Freeman MD. An entrepreneur mental health specialist and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
  • William Hynes DPhil. Head of the New Approaches to Economic Challenges Unit at the OECD and Senior Advisor to the OECD Secretary General.

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