Applying Neuroscience to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals

Together with its partner organization the Korean Institute of Brain Science, the International Brain Education Association (IBREA) organizes a conference at the United Nations every year and submits a subsequent statement to the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The yearly conference is placed in the context of that year’s ECOSOC agenda. IBREA presents “Brain Education” as a holistic educational method that can serve as a tool to contribute to the U.N. goals in general and in particular to the ECOSOC’s agenda for that year.

The underlying belief of this approach is that the root of our global problems lies in the human brain, and in the brain lie the answers. In large and small ways, our brains are impacted by life events and by our environment, affecting in turn what we do and how our bodies work. The same applies the other way around: The brain and its neural processes have an impact on our environment.

Research has demonstrated that major, potentially traumatic stressors such as violent attacks or abuse may have long-term effects on brain structure, brain and body function, and behavior — even after just one event. Other work has demonstrated that more subtle, pervasive, and/or chronic stressors such as poverty or growing up in a chaotic household or community can impact our brain and body — including decreasing our immune response. Both stressors can suppress electrical activity in the brain and reduce new cell growth. In fact, chronic stress actually shrinks the hippocampus, impairing abilities such as learning, memory, and social-emotional management. Over time, the deterioration shapes our brain, and, in doing so, it is shaping our body’s response to the next stressor. Day after day, year after year, that’s the process by which we create our habits; or, in other words, the way we feel, think, and act in our lives.

Children who grow up amid economic insecurity in developing countries often face many obstacles in their environment — for example, parents without education, lack of healthy activities, lack of enrichment activities, violent neighborhoods and lack of access to medical resources. These circumstances have effects on the brain which are mainly rooted in the stress they create and can directly impede learning, motivation, creativity, and productivity.

It is evident that negative environments affect our brains. But what is less acknowledged is that our brains also have the capacity to change those circumstances. Scientific findings have shown us how the brain is malleable (known as “neuroplasticity”), so we have the ability to rewire it. That is why, more and more, there are science-supported ways being developed to mitigate those accentuated habits caused by stress responses and to positively nurture the brain. Specific training during childhood can redirect the thought and emotional processes negatively affected by our environment in a radical manner. The same brain-flexibility that makes children particularly vulnerable to damage from the toxic stressors that often accompany difficult socio-economic environments also makes them particularly open to positive change in their early years.

Brain Education was developed to promote the process of creating that positive change. There are five essential steps in Brain Education. All of the steps are informed by principles of the root of our global problems lies in the human brain, and in the brain lie the answers brain function as illuminated through neuroscience, making its consistent practice result in improved concentration, greater creative power, and increased empathy and cooperative spirit. Ultimately, the steps lead people to a sense of authorship over the workings of their brain.

We are also recently discovering that what happens in our brains at the individual level impacts the collective level. Traditional neuroscience has for many years considered the human brain as an isolated entity and mostly ignored influences of and to the social contexts in which humans live. But we now recognize the considerable impact of social structures on the functions of the brain and body, and vice versa. These social factors operate on the person through a continuous interplay of neural, neuroendocrine, metabolic, and immune factors on brain and body in which the brain is the central regulatory organ and also a malleable target of those factors.

If we apply the findings of so-called social neuroscience, which investigates the biological mechanisms such as neural organization and function that underlie social processes and behavior, to the educational systems in the developing world, we can find ways of maximizing the potential of the brain in young generations to create social and economic change at the community level.

What IBREA suggests and was discussed in the U.N. conference, which hosted over 30 country representatives from the developed and developing world and participants from IBREA’s World Youth Leadership program, is for policymakers and educators to be aware of the value and immense capacity of the brain as our human common denominator and life source, to create our world. The tool IBREA offers to increase that awareness is called Brain Education, a holistic education that combines traditional mind-body training from the East with neuroscientific advances from the West working at the physical, emotional, and cognitive levels at the same time. The program has proven to generate changes including better academic achievement, reduction of absenteeism, and enhanced stress management and better peer relationships in the school systems of El Salvador and Liberia. Other U.N. missions representing countries facing a variety of socio-economic challenges, such as Colombia, Panama, Dominican Republic, and Sierra Leone, are considering Brain Education as a potential tool contributing to their country’s stability and growth.

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