A psychiatrist examines complex systems of brain structure and function in order to probe the roots of social discord.
When one experiences conflict with another person, one often thinks that it’s because that other person’s brain is “wired” differently. Debut author Sheehan, a trained medical doctor and a retired U.S. Army psychiatrist, expands on that familiar idea, asserting that our brains are also “trained” differently by unique life experiences. Our thoughts follow familiar patterns, he says, so we can remember important information and live our everyday lives; taken together, these recurring patterns harmonize to form the “oscillation” of the title. This oscillation, Sheehan says, makes us who we are, and it “transforms the brain’s three-pound mass of gray matter into a dynamic medium.” The truly revolutionary idea of this book, though, is its notion that these oscillations define how we approach conflict with others. The first chapters delve deeply into brain anatomy and electrochemical functioning, while later ones explain psychiatric principles, such as how one forms a sense of self and others. Then the book briefly describes complex systems in natural phenomena, such as the relationship between weather and climate, using Hurricane Katrina as an example. As a result, Sheehan makes readers absorb a lot of technical information before they arrive at his most important implication, which he only truly reveals in the last few page of the book: by understanding how our brains work, he says, we may better understand conflict on a personal, communal, and even global scale. He further asserts that, because modern transportation and communication technologies constantly expose us to different points of view (that is, other kinds of oscillations), our comfortable patterns are constantly under assault, and we begin to think of other cultures as enemies. This thesis is a particularly provocative one given the rise of nationalist movements in the United States and abroad. The book would have benefited, however, from a much stronger focus on it.
A work that has something important to say about the role of neurobiology in social conflict—but doesn’t say quite enough.