The Brain as Mediator: Exploring the Neuroscience of Conflict

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


In summer 2014, nearly 25,000 employees of Market Basket, a New England supermarket chain, walked off the job in support of their fired boss, billionaire Arthur T. Demoulas. Even customers, in support of the workers, stopped shopping at the chain. The two new CEOs first fired eight strike leaders, and then offered a series of ultimatums. The workers, who had not attended Ivy League business schools where “do not negotiate” and “never apologize” positions are often encouraged, ignored the ultimatums. They roasted lamb in supermarket parking lots and served it to customers who carried placards supporting the staff.

In the end, the workers won. Arthur T. Demoulas’ bid to buy Market Basket for $1.5 billion was successful. Ten days after Market Basket employees returned to work and stores crowded with shoppers, fast food workers in 150 U.S. cities, driven by the desire to begin earning a livable wage, followed suit by going on strike.

Dr. David Morin, who holds a master’s degree in business administration and is a clinical psychiatrist with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services, commented: “I got an MBA ten years ago and at that time, the fad was to build consensus, talk in groups, and to diminish aggression. Today, bullying management in many organizations appears to be a response to intense competition. There is a battle over resources and who is going to have the wealth. But the Market Basket case was in some instances a poll on public opinion about such management and the outcome was in many ways a publicity and marketing coup for the new owner of the chain. Market Basket gives good quality at a low price, but the conflict showed that people want quality in terms of how corporates treat their employees too.”

Can any of this translate into political conflict, especially that involving countries or terrorist groups? Are there any lessons from, or for, neuroscience? As siege tears apart much of Iraq and Syria, and conflict escalates in Ukraine, now seems a more crucial time for conflict resolution from a scientific standpoint than ever before. While there is considerable research about aggression and conflict, there is a paucity of research into the impact on the brain as it moves from conflict and confrontation to negotiation and collaboration.

Harvard psychologist Joshua D. Greene, author of “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them,” believes that moral sense is compromised by the “moral tribes” that divide the modern world. Everyone has moral machinery on board, but we don’t always respect the cultural differences of others. This creates an inflexibility of moral intuition. We have heartstrings, but they’re not designed to be tugged from very far away. And our heartstrings are more likely to respond to those we recognize as allies, and to be cold to those we see as “others.” There is no surprise in that, it has enabled and fuelled every war the world has seen.

But as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi found in their pursuits of ending conflict in their respective nations, progressing from conflict to negotiation, accommodation, and peace means finding and emphasizing that which links us, not that which divides us. Mandela, who ran for president of South Africa after spending over a quarter of a century in jail for his activism, advocated a policy of reconciliation. Radicals in South Africa hotly debated his views. They had experienced a decade of state-orchestrated death squads, torture, and imprisonment. He listened patiently to one such angry debate and asked, “What will it cost us to negotiate?” There were no answers. By his example, he revealed that the hearts and minds of even the most militant racists could be transformed not by blame, nor punishment, but by recognizing our shared humanity. His tenure as South Africa’s first democratically elected president remains his nation’s golden age.

Gerard Finnemore, a South African neuropsychologist based in Johannesburg says: “The revenge-focused brain communicates between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala firing messages that say, ‘we’ll get you back, we’ll get you back.’ That’s what you see in the Israel-Palestine situation. The response is always emotional. It’s the same sort of response if a man is in a pub and someone looks at his girlfriend and he picks a fight. But the brain that learns how to control the amygdala, through meditation as an example, has a slower, more controlled response.” This may be why the Department of Veterans Affairs offers meditation as a major component in its treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder for returning military personnel.

Part of what slows our conversion towards discussion, negotiation, and accommodation is that our brain is complicit in propaganda and self-deceit. Emory University psychology professor Drew Westen, Ph.D., and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience describing the neural correlates of political judgment and decision-making. Using functional MRI, the team examined the brain activity of 30 different political activists at the time of the 2004 U.S. presidential election who self-identified as either Democrats or Republicans. When these participants were provided with negative information about the candidates they supported, the brain areas responsible for reasoning did not show increased activity. Instead, the areas controlling emotions lit up. Participants found ways to twist facts to exonerate their candidate of choice. As they did this, areas of the brain involving reward processing showed increased activity.

What Westen found was that the brains of Democrats were typically most active in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning, and Republicans tended to access their ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, an area associated with emotions. However, a growing body of neuroscience questions the efficacy of such scans. Bruce Price, chief of the Department of Neurology at McLean Hospital in Boston, says: “Scans are an unnatural environment for cognition. They’re only indirect measures of brain activity. There needs to be a confluence of other data.” Nonetheless, Westen says that the notion of “partisan reasoning” is an oxymoron. In his book, “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” he argues that in politics, when reason and emotion collide, reason will always lose. So although we may say that truth is important, our brains have a long history of compelling us to accept lies as facts.

Finnemore uses his home country as an example. A country that had seen the slaughter of as many as 200 people each weekend due to apartheid violence, suddenly found peace during Mandela’s presidency. Enemies embraced each other. “It became peaceful and happy, peopled lived a more centered life,” recalls Finnemore. “Acceptance of former enemies creates a physical or biological transformation in the individual, their pulse rate is not as high, their skin temperature is lower, all the biomarkers of arousal are down.”

But South Africa today has one of the worst crime rates in the world. A rape occurs every 26 seconds and close to 50 murders occur daily. “This week alone there was a shopping mall armed robbery every day, and that creates significant stress. People are fearful and anticipating an attack all the time,” says Finnemore.

So why don’t people leave? Some do, but others have no choice but to endure it. As unsettling as it might sound, Finnemore says, “Sometimes, you can become addicted to stress if you have a slight ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) profile. Those people often create conflict in their life in order to get themselves pumped for the rest of the day.” This may be why some soldiers and journalists are so unsettled by the monotony of peace and keep returning to conflict zones.

Morin says that returning soldiers struggle because they have been trained psychologically to respond with maximum force and to kill. First of all, they have to jump the psychological hurdle where people say you must not kill. In combat they go into a state of hyperarousal. Their whole body, and not just the brain, has a stress response. The amygdala is conditioned to extreme responses to the degree that these soldiers become hypervigilant and startle easily. They can’t sleep, and much of their normal life patterns become disrupted as they try readjusting to civilian life after they are discharged from service. In countries where there is persistent or frequent conflict, where group dynamics come into play, it becomes challenging to ponder how one separates individuals from a state or social group.

An entire nation can develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Think of Germany after the bombing of Dresden and learning of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime, or Japan in the wake of the destruction of both Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the countless victims of radiation. The survivors become hypervigilant, wanting to control everything, including their emotions, something they had to withdraw from in order to endure the atrocities they have witnessed. Empathy disappears and they become rigid and detached. They are edgy and often prepared to fight if things aren’t done their way.


If a peaceful situation resumes they find themselves, like the returning soldiers, challenged by having to switch their approach from conflict to negotiation. One needs empathy to negotiate, for two or more parties to put aside their differences and admit wrongdoing. However, negotiation can also come from frustration with conflict and a realization that your side is not always going to win, something that we all must bear in mind as we live our day-to-day lives, regardless of whether we’re returning from war or from a hard day at the office.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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