For many of us, the flood of tribal hate and violence in the news can lead to a feeling of inevitability, that we human beings are inherently at the throats of those unlike us, and that it will be forever so. But for those in the conflict resolution field, there is a quietly growing effort to find hope in a new area: neuroscience.
Some who work with ethnic, racial and religious conflict are pairing with neuroscientists to understand how small advancements in brain research can help explain how we experience emotions like prejudice and disgust and fear. It will be a while before researchers are able to devise many specific strategies for using that knowledge of how the brain works in the peace-building process. But simply teaching people that there is a neurological basis for prejudice has the potential to help them view the deep-seated roots of their conflicts more objectively, says Timothy Phillips, co-founder of the conflict resolution organization Beyond Conflict.
“There is something deeply powerful about knowing it’s not just about culture, race, ethnicity – that all those things sit on an operating system called the human brain, and that that is universal,” says Phillips. “Contrary to social and political science that says humans are rational, we are deeply emotional beings. What drives our behavior is deeply emotionally based but we don’t even have access to what drives us.”