Neuroscience and Conflict Resolution: Beginning the Conversation


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The human brain illustrated with millions of small neurons.

Is there a connection between neuroscience and conflict resolution? Beyond Conflict, a Cambridge-based NGO, would say there is.

In an ongoing collaborative effort with MIT’s SaxeLab for Social Cognitive Neuroscience and its Political Science department, Beyond Conflict is working to establish this connection and educate others on how it can deepen and broaden the way conflict is approached.

Beyond Conflict, founded in 1992, has worked on the front-lines of conflict resolution around the world, in regions ranging from Northern Ireland and Eastern Europe, to South Africa and the Middle East.

After 22 years, the organization has begun to wonder what is missing from the field. ”That’s where I believe neuroscience comes in,” said Timothy Phillips, co-founder of the organization, ”Neuroscientists are finding ways to understand human behavior that can revolutionize our understanding of being human and what drives people to and away from conflict.”

One recent initiative launched via the partnership was an event entitled ”Norms, Narratives and Neurons.” The conference, held in March at MIT’s campus, was a component of the organization’s ongoing Neuroscience and Social Conflict initiative. It hosted experts in neuroscience, political science, and psychology. The event sought to highlight the overlap among the fields and begin discussions on how they can collectively provide a better understanding of human nature within conflict.

The initiative is quickly gaining followers. ”The more we can understand the conflict, and neuroscience helps us, the more we can understand the perversions that happen within the conflict, ” said Veton Surroi, the Chairman of the Board for The Kosovo Foreign Policy Club, who attended the conference.

The central discussion of the conference was of how neuroscience can be applied to political science in an interdisciplinary way. MIT neuroscientist Emile Bruneau believes that the reasons and rationales behind conflict often come from deeply seated beliefs, narratives, and hatreds, some of which the conscious mind doesn’t recognize. Scans and neuroimaging can help in understanding what truly drives both conscious and subconscious decisions within conflict. Armed with an understanding of the neurobiological processes, more effective antiviolence policies can be employed.

”If we do this well, we can help make the world a less violent place,” said Bill Casebeer, Program Manager of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.