Laura Ligouri: the Cognitive Scientist

28 October 2020
SERIES Narrative power & collective action: conversations with people working to change narratives for social good 12 items

[This conversation was originally published in part 1 of ‘Narrative Power & Collective Action’, a collaboration between Oxfam and On Think Tanks. All conversations were edited by Louise Ball. Download the publication.]

Laura Ligouri is a cognitive scientist, working on the boundary between neuroscience and psychology – between the brain and the mind. She is Executive Director and Founder of Mindbridge, a non-profit organisation that seeks to profoundly transform human rights through the action of psychological and neurological applied science.

We cannot make decisions and take action on something we have no experience with. So, if we want people to support and promote human rights, we need to start telling them what that looks like. If we only tell them what abuse of human rights looks like, that’s all they will know.

Connecting neuroscience research with human rights work

My work skirts the boundary between neuroscience and psychology – understanding the boundary zone between the brain and the mind. 

I look at how our biology gives rise to the mind. That invisible yet influential world of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, imagination and also action – what you choose to do and why. 

Mindbridge came from my experiences doing psych or neuro research, or supporting those doing research, and trying to engage with NGOs all over the world. The same themes kept coming up over and over again. 

Human rights organisations have these larger than life questions: how do we mitigate the extraordinary bias and discrimination that leads to things like genocide? How do we develop empathy that’s not going to fade over time the minute our intervention ends? 

How do we build a sense of empowerment within a population that has been systematically disempowered over dozens of years?

These are topics that psychology and neuroscience researchers have been investigating for decades. And yet very rarely does that research ever make its way into human rights work. 

At Mindbridge we were interested in connecting human rights defenders to all of that research taking place in the lab.

Narrative psychology

‘Narrative psychology’: is a psychology perspective interested in the storied nature of human conduct. In other words, how human beings make choices and deal with experiences by observing and listening to the stories that surround them. 

As social creatures, we invest a lot of our cognitive energy in producing, receiving and being influenced by these stories. 

They work to influence those invisible yet influential worlds of thoughts, feelings and attitudes. In this way, narrative becomes something of a lifeline, influencing what we believe and ultimately choose to act on. 

When it comes to narrative, I seek to understand how the stories we weave, sometimes consciously but often unconsciously, influence our values and beliefs and specifically about human rights. 

Why narratives are powerful

If we understand narratives as stories that inform how human beings see and engage with the world, there is a rather implicit nature to that powerful interaction. 

And there’s been tons written about this in both the psychological and neurobiological disciplines. Everything ranging from how we form our self-identity through stories, to how we make meaning from the events and people we are surrounded by. 

It’s possible to manipulate narratives to ‘other’ a particular group because it’s easy… it’s biological. 

At Mindbridge, in our Implicit Bias Project, we use psychological and neurobiological research to design a mitigation programme for bias, racism and discrimination, by hacking our brains. 

Bias is important to understand attacks on human rights defenders, activists, or specific groups in society, for example, migrants. 

What makes these kinds of attacks particularly salient are the ways in which they engage with an underlying biological system. 

Bias is something that is present within our structures, society, and cultures or institutions, but takes hold because of how our biology functions. 

We have a line in our brains that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. But what that line looks like is the product of our culture, society, and our narrative experience. 

At some point in our evolutionary history, it became advantageous for us to easily discern between us and them. It was something that was integrally entwined into our biology, it’s something we do exceedingly fast. 

It’s precisely these kinds of deeply embedded processes that are being hacked and taken advantage of by populist leaders and those wanting to create divisions in society. They’re playing with this knowledge in order to produce power and control.

Strategies for changing narratives

We need to understand these processes if we want to create effective methods of working against bias, racism, discrimination, homophobia, islamophobia, xenophobia. Then we have to foster community and cooperation instead. 

The good news is that the research is there. We’ve just got to use it.

Implications of naming and shaming 

When it comes to narratives around human rights, there’s a big focus on reporting human rights abuses in an effort to motivate people to action and solidarity. What is known as ‘naming and shaming’. 

However, there is quite a bit of psychological research that indicates that we might inadvertently, through our own narrative design, be unconsciously weaving an understanding of human rights abuses as normal and ever-present. 

And for many populations, the idea of crisis and conflict as normal and ever-present, without a shred of hope, is fertile ground for populist responses. 

So, the question then becomes: how can narrative turn the tide? If our own use of narrative might be a big part of the problem, how can we change this process? 

We don’t necessarily want to stop monitoring and reporting human rights abuses… of course not. But in addition, we also need to start crafting a narrative that purposefully and intentionally offers a different reality.

Crafting stories of hope and possibilities 

So, we need a different story for our brains and minds to create value and beliefs from. A story that tells people what human rights actually are. What a world with human rights looks like. We need to start crafting stories of hope and possibility. 

This isn’t a naïve notion. There is real psychological and neurobiological evidence suggesting that we cannot envision a future we have no memory of. 

We cannot make decisions and take action on something we have no experience with. So, if we want people to support and promote human rights… we need to start telling them what that looks like. If we only tell them what abuse of human rights looks like, that’s all they will know. 

There’s a lot of recent research around hope-based communications and the psychological or neurobiological realm, but I’d like to bring us to one of the earliest stories, and that’s a story of patient HM. HM is possibly one of the single best known patients in the history of neuroscience. Born in 1926, by the age of 27 he had experienced seizures for many years. In 1953 he underwent an experimental procedure: a bilateral medial temporal lobectomy. In other words, a significant portion of his brain was removed, including the hippocampus, which is essential for making memories. The seizures were reduced, but at a cost. A curious unforeseen side effect was that HM was unable to imagine and plan future events, suggesting that our memories and how new memories are formed are an essential element in imagining oneself engaging in future behaviour. Later research would support this claim. 

Brain hack 

Our brains are malleable. We have the ability to update these systems as we learn. 

There is some beautiful research that shows that in some cases, simply shifting group boundaries can override what we might have thought of as deeply intrenched or even automatic biases (see for example, ‘The Neural Substrates of In-Group Bias’ by Van Bavel et al. 2008). 

By shifting our lens, we shift the way we interact with people. It’s a bit of a brain hack… but it’s possible.