Understanding diversity, a neuroscience perspective

Diversity at the social, work, national and international level, in the shape of prejudice, racism, and genocide, has been the subject of much discussion and legislation for some while now. In the workplace, equal opportunities training and legislation has sought to provide understanding in such circumstances as: birth, upbringing, religion, sex, ethnicity, race, caste, or involuntary personal attributes such as disability, age, gender, or sexual orientation. Indeed, a considerable ‘industry’ has developed, around specialising in these matters; including coaching and sensitivity training.

It is considered by many, including those in the ‘industry’, that the current approaches have reached the limits of their effectiveness and that many are seeking a way of taking this highly ethical matter forward. In providing this new approach, IGO applies findings from neuroscience in an attempt to develop a different understanding based on the way we all react to difference.

The basis of this new approach starts from childhood which as Schore (2003) points out, is highly significant because young infants function in a fundamentally unconscious way, and unconscious processes in an older child or adult can be traced back to the primitive functioning of the infant. Part of this unconscious functioning of the young infant is that which we refer to as the experience of ‘stranger anxiety’ the distress that children experience when exposed to people unfamiliar to them, usually occurring from about the first four months of life.  This is an experience of fear and anxiety which will inevitably become etched in the forming brain, and although, as adults, we cannot consciously remember this experience it will never be forgotten because it is built into our organism and informs our expectations and behaviours (Watt, 2001).

The process then moves to a theoretical understanding of fear and anxiety drawing on the work of Joseph Le Doux (2015), and Mark Solms (2002), which, following our early childhood experience, continue throughout our lives. Le Doux informs us that a key factor that links fear and anxiety is that they both depend on mechanisms in the brain that detect and respond to threats that demand action whether present or anticipated, real or imagined. Threat detection provides preparation for fight or flight. We are all familiar with fight or flight that is triggered when we encounter present or anticipated threats, and that moves into overdrive when we are under stress. The whole-body reaction being mobilised to help us survive an encounter with danger. Solms refers to a fear system that has the evolutionary advantage of allowing us to escape rapidly from dangerous situations and to avoid such situations in the future. While on the perceptual side brain stimulation is associated with feelings of extreme anxiety or terror.

The process is followed by moving to an understanding of ‘social phobia’ influenced by the work of Louis Cozolino (2014). He takes the view that because prejudice and racism are issues fraught with so much emotion, looking at these through the lens of science may offer some helpful clues to their origins and potential cures. Imagining the lives of our tribal ancestors, it is easy to see the survival benefit of developing a fast and reflexive system for rapid classification of unfamiliar others. Having our fear and vigilance circuitry reflexively activated by unfamiliar others would help us to avoid exposure to new diseases and direct familiar harm through pre-emptive avoidance or attack.

Throughout the process, IGO use the phenomenon of stranger anxiety as applied to the theoretical understanding of fear and anxiety and how this experience in childhood remains part of our memory and influences us in regard to diversity in adult life.

This leads to conclusions with suggestions for potential actions that will reduce prejudice in regard to diverse others and encourage the enjoyment of diversity.


Those interested should contact IGO with a view to making an appointment to discuss specific needs and for IGO to provide a tailor-made proposal based on the above approach.

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