The Brain as Mediator: Exploring the Neuroscience of Conflict

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.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Brain World Magazine.


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