there is no spoon

believing is seeing?

As soon as light hits your eye, conflict can begin.

Neurons tasked with visual processing will combine with the trillions of synapses in your brain connecting them, firing what you’ve just seen right through your thalamus relay station to the back of your head, where your primary visual cortex sits waiting. Your visual cortex will then take over a huge bulk of your brain function, making an immediate assessment about what you’ve seen.

If that assessment is one of danger, say in a conflict if it’s someone shouting at you or firing you a cold glare, your brain might do a number of things. It could ensure the right side of your brain dominates over the left, more careful and problem-solving side, cutting off its access via the corpus callosum, leaving you working this conflict effectively with half a brain. And it could ensure the lower part of your brain dominates over the higher part, kicking into play your sympathetic nervous system, stimulating your vagus nerve, flooding your system with neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and adrenalin. As a result, your brain will have ensured that you’re ready, primed to fight or flee, your pupils having dilated, energy pumping to your muscles, your heart rate increasing.

And it will do all this, without you realising it, in less than a heartbeat.

And this is an example of what it does every second of every day of your life.

And because your brain has to do all this, to do so much so quickly, it’ll take shortcuts, make snap decisions and assumptions based on the neural networks you’ve formed since you were born. It will prime you to react in a way that might not be necessary. It will immerse you in a virtual reality that lends itself more to survival than to accuracy, a reality in which everything you see, everything you assess about what you see, is true.

Think of it, therefore, like you’re wearing a VR headset, like what you see with your eyes under this headset is actually masking what’s really going on.

So as your brain is processing this light that’s hit your eye, as it’s taking these shortcuts and making these assumptions for the sake of efficiency rather than accuracy, what do you think is happening in the brain of the person with whom you’re in conflict? Might the same thing be happening? Could it be that each of those brains will be convincing its host that we’re right and they’re wrong? Could each of those brains be putting reason and logic to one side, be priming its host for dangers that, in actual reality, might not exist?

You might wonder, therefore, that if we’re all so deeply submerged in our own virtual world, these weird VR headsets over our eyes causing us to fumble about arms outstretched, bumping into each other in conflict and masking our vision of what’s really going on, how can conflict ever be resolved?

there is no spoon for the conflict brain

Here’s a little extract from the theory section of pocketconflictcoach on this:

And thinking about what you’ve learned already about how in the middle of conflict your right brain can shut off your left problem-solving brain, about how your down brain and autonomic nervous system can dope you up and goad you to fight or flee, maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t it seem a bit strange that your brain’s going to a whole lot of trouble to make you react like this to a reality that, as you know now, it’s made up on its own? Is it not a bit like throwing your toaster into the bath and jumping in? 

Weird, right? 

But take a look at the bigger picture here and it might explain why your brain’s acting so strangely like this. It might explain that, as it has throughout the entire history of evolution, your brain’s just tying to adapt to survive. What we know now, however, is that our future depends on us proving our brain wrong. Learning how not to see reality as it’s observed by your brain will earn you a whopping huge thumbs up from cognitive scientists around the world, particularly those who consider it an absolute necessity of evolution, the very survival of the human race, to move beyond blanket acceptance of what we see to being curious about it. Advances in technology are revealing to us every day that evolution has moved you up a level, that these days, your ability to adapt to survive is reflected less in the immediacy of your reaction when faced with a predator, and more in the innate skills you now have to question if what you’re seeing is actually a predator at all. 

It’s not an easy thing to do, of course, I get that. Because our brains have had us wrapped up so comfortably, so snugly in our virtual, self-preserving worlds that, when faced with the task of ripping off our virtual reality headsets, of opening our eyes to the true heart of conflict, we could end up disorientated, completely out of control, yearning even for a return to that virtual world in which we’d become familiar, at home, safe. No-one likes to hear they’ve been looking at something the wrong way, do they? 

And I mean of course, I get it, this all sounds pretty depressing doesn’t it? That nothing you see is real but instead a figment of your imagination? 

But maybe there’s a more positive way of looking at that. Maybe you’re like Neo in The Matrix movie. See, right now as you read this, you have the choice to take the blue pill and accept your reality as it is, to believe what you want to believe. There it is, right where you last felt sure of yourself in conflict, right where you looked at this person arguing and thought, ‘if only they realised they’re talking utter nonsense’. Sound good? Or on the flip side, you can take the red pill, and, as challenging as it might be, start to open your eyes to a whole new world that, OK at first glance might look pretty grey and bleak, a vast wilderness of the unknown, of discomfort, but that on more careful observation could blossom right before your eyes into a rich, vibrant olive grove of opportunity. 

So what you’re learning here is that in conflict, if each of us is living in our own virtual reality in which we’re right and everyone else is either wrong, or just not as right as us, if we’re all plugged into and blinded by this intricate fairytale matrix our brains have created for us, the single most effective way of engaging constructively with conflict is to become sentient together, to connect those virtual realities through civil discourse, reaching out, sharing information, thereby exposing them collaboratively for the fictions that they are, revealing what’s underneath, a real world of mutual fear and uncertainty that needs tending. 

Thankfully, despite how hard it works every single moment in life to distract you, to dope you towards comfort and self-righteousness, if forced your brain can still give you the choice of which pill to take, and that choice continues to remain open to you even if, until now, you’ve been digesting the other pill, the one that’s led you so blindly into conflict without the deep understanding needed to boss it. Your brain is so powerful, so magnificent and full of unparalleled potential, that connecting with others’ brains in civil discussion, that resolving to and doing the work necessary to plug yourself back into the real world, isn’t as difficult as you might believe.

let’s get to work

As you’ll pick up in pocketconflictcoach, we have it in us to wrestle back control in conflict, and we can do this by using the brain’s own tools against it. With a little effort, with a pinch of neurogenesis, we can teach ourselves how to find our centre, how to fire up our right temporal parietal junction, our network of mirror neurons, all the magic spinning in our head and begin to engage with conflict more effectively, more constructively.

And so here’s the thing.

If this is what’s really happening at the root of conflict, if our brain has so much power, if all our brains have so much power, if we don’t tread carefully and each of us finds ourselves living in a virtual world that totally misses what’s really going on, how helpful do you think it might be, in the face of conflict, for us to be directed towards adversarial process (courts, investigations, tribunals, procedures) that vindicates the brain’s inaccuracies, that gives our brains the outlet they need for their assumptions and their biases?

Have we been looking at the resolution of conflict the wrong way?

As we do in conflict, our instinct is to point the finger of blame elsewhere, because our brains tell us to do so. Our brains have been trying to protect us, directing movie after movie in our head that may be empowering but in reality are a complete fiction. So if we’re being told by our own brains to point the finger, is this how we came to design systems of civil and criminal justice that do the same? Given the amount of conflict we have in the world today, from mild irritation to adverse childhood experiences to domestic violence to terrorism to war, can we be sure that these systems we conceived long ago, before we evolved to understand more about our brains and our bodies, can we be absolutely sure that they’ve been working?

Or could we take a step back for a moment, and wonder whether, in all conflict and with what we know now, the beginning of the answer lies within?

Of course, I’ve simplified some extremely complex mechanics and questions there, but having read this, if that’s the thought going through your head have a think about what might be driving it…

Scott Docherty

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