brain in conflict

Two questions for you:

  1. Have you ever watched a telethon or an advert or the news, and there’s this heart-wrenching story about suffering that hits you hard, that without thinking makes you want to reach out and help? Like something about cancer, hunger, earthquakes, poor kids.
  2. Have you ever watched the news or been in a situation where you feel nothing but anger or irritation about others, that without thinking makes you want to express hard opinions about them, about how wrong they are? Like politicians, terrorists, folk at work, your friends or relations.

So here’s some more:

Have you ever wondered why this is? How is it that without thinking you can feel the urge to connect with some folks, and yet, still without thinking seek to break and burn connections with others? How can both come so naturally? What does this say about you, about how you go about your life?

This is the kind of stuff I’ve been mulling over.

the outside

Turn on the tube in any given moment, and you’ll face a bombardment of images. Somewhere is crumbling from an earthquake. People are lost under rubble, dying in droves. They need help. And over there, acres of forests are on fire. Houses and lives are at risk. And over here, children are suffering because of this or that. And there, [insert disaster or disease or crime or event or more] is crushing [insert innocent victims].

Any. Given. Moment.

And in this moment, we band together and feel for those affected. We raise money. Send aid. Share stories. Act in unison. Connect with others with love and understanding. We help.

But then, in the next moment, we see others grow richer while we toil endlessly in the mud and mire of our lives. We hear our elected representatives warn us that our borders need defended. We see players from the other team cheating. We see others acting in ways we never would. We see inequality, discrimination, poverty, power imbalance. And we get angry. And we fight our corner.

Those elected representatives warning us that our borders need defended, those leaders imploring that we need to sacrifice our enlisted loved ones and kill or harm others we don’t know? More than likely, later that day they’ll head home to their own loved ones, and they’ll play with them, laugh with them. One minute it’s all join together and fight. The next minute it’s all join together and love.

So what’s at the root of this split persona? Why does love and hate feel so natural to us?

the inside

Take the brain of the football fan.

In his brain (and for brevity we’ll assume this fan is a man – let’s call him Bob), there’s a whack of stuff going on. Look beyond the stadium in which he stands, at all the colours and smells and sounds, and zoom through his retina and deep into his brain. What you’ll see there is this magical whir and buzz of neurotransmitters and myelin-coated neural pathways and more. And as Bob’s team fires in a goal, you’ll see a mad surge of blood, the likes of oxytocin and testosterone flooding his synapses, restricting the flow of neurons through his corpus callosum and closing off the critical thinking areas of his brain.

All in the blink of an eye.

Oxytocin, referred to commonly as the love hormone, is produced in your hypothalamus within the middle of your brain. It’s known as the love hormone because, amongst other things, it helps you bond with others, helps you create shares memories.

And so when his team knocks the ball into the back of the net, our Bob (and for brevity let’s assume that usually he’s pretty reserved in expressing vulnerability) turns and hugs the bloke beside him, both of them jumping up and down together in unbridled tears of joy.

But wait.

What about those in the stadium supporting the other team? Why is our Bob now gesticulating towards them, taunting them? Is his oxytocin not working? Why is it making him bond only with some fans and not others?

Oh boy, and what’s this?

The goal was ruled offside? So why’s our Bob screaming at the referee and the opposition fans who’re now cheering so forcefully towards him?

Did I mention this was an international match? So why is our Bob now abusing people in general from the country represented by the opposing team? And why is religion creeping into it?

And after the final whistle and Bob returns home that night, despite this intensity of negative emotion he’s experienced earlier on, how is it that he can get home and hug his kids, laugh with them about their day, tell them a bedtime story, kiss them on their foreheads with love in his eyes?

the conflict

Turns out, although your brain’s wired to bond and connect with others, it’s also layered in fear, in our innate mechanisms of survival. Your eternally volatile limbic system and its amygdala will have you reacting to fears triggered by perceived attacks on your identity, to what you hold dearest, and more often than not that perception will be coloured by the innate bias you’ve cultivated naturally from birth.

So although the mechanics in your brain will allow you to bond, to connect with others if you train it well, this ain’t the end of the story, because the foundation of this bond you create is likely to have been influenced by the fears and negativity swilling playfully around in your limbic system.

  • And so you bond, but only with some folks and not with others.
  • And so you see those others as different to yourself.
  • And so you feel it natural to build or maintain the walls between you and them.

How do we reconcile this and begin to work as one through conflict?

On the one hand, conflict is a problem to solve. On the other, conflict is the absence of the abilities we need to solve it. It’ll grow arms and legs if we don’t have those abilities. The theory goes, therefore, that we should begin with our kids, that from the outset we should hand them the skills they’ll need through life to seek out understanding beneath conflict, to seek social connection in the knowledge that despite the differences our brains have us perceive, we’re all on this planet this together.

Shape the brains of our children in this way, focus less on the tests and the pass marks, spend significantly more time training their brains to find space between their impulse and response, teach them not to believe and react to their brain’s first perception, and just watch what happens.

In time the world would wake up and realise a great many things.

It would realise that the borders drawn up by our ancestors and leaders all those years ago are just artificial, that they should mean about as much to us as humans as they do to the insect that scuttles under the border checkpoint. It would realise that ownership of property is just artificial. It would realise that the differences we perceive every day between ourselves and others are just artificial, that every single conflict we face in life can be met way more constructively with sustained and careful dialogue not debate, with shared stories at its core, with listening, empathy, understanding.

But there’s no need to wait until that day.

We can begin the work now. Until that day, we can place peer mediation and conflict engagement skills at the centre of our education system. Until that day, we can begin designing and collaborating on resolution centres, in which advice and support is freely available for all types of conflict, designed to empower those in conflict to sort things out themselves. Until that day we can develop online conflict engagement services, with learning and development at their core. Until that day we can improve restorative justice within the criminal system and seek more understanding as to the origin of the ‘criminal mind’ with a view to real prevention. Until that day, we can spread awareness of the links between adverse childhood experiences and the behaviour we go on to display and the health issues we go on to develop. Until that day, we can carve out interests rather than rights-based systems, and we can place civil discourse and “mediating ways” at the heart of every element of potential conflict in society, from government all the way down to family separation and homelessness and the fights we get into at school.

Until that day, you can help refocus those around you, those looking to you for help in conflict. You can reach out to them, encourage those in conflict to think less about what’s going on outside, all that anger and anxiety and stress, and think a little more about what’s inside, what it is about their brains and their bodies that’s making them feel or act the way they do.

Help them pause, help them meditate, help them determine their own future, and that second question I started with earlier, the one about getting irked at folks? You’ll have empowered them with the ability to engage more effectively with those they’d otherwise have screamed and raged at.

So it might take a while, but together we can do this!

See the outside | explore the inside | Sort the conflict

Transform your approach to conflict with pocketconflictcoach, the first innovation in the Mediation In Your Pocket project.


Scott Docherty

I run this site and will do my best to mediate your conflict.