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Neuropeace: Putting Science to Work for Peace

New Ways to Encounter ‘the Other’

Photo: Emile Bruneau

Imagine this elephant picture as the human brain. The rider on top – he represents conscious processes. Out of all of the brain’s activity, he seemingly directs everything, allowing us to “know” what we are doing. The rest of the elephant? It represents the unconscious aspects of our brain, the parts that we don’t have so much information about. Surprising, isn’t it? Here we thought that we lived in a rational age where cognitive science had at least figured out much of what there is to know about the brain. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.

For three days in January, The El-Hibri Foundation, Beyond Conflict, and the Alliance of Peacebuilders brought neuroscientists and peacebuilders together to ask questions about how neuroscience can influence the field of peacebuilding and justice work. I was a guest. Along with the rest of what I’ve remember from the week, this elephant image was the most startlingly take-away. We are not nearly as rational beings as we thought – indeed, much of our work happens ‘in the elephant,’ influenced by our emotions.

What was exciting about this meeting was the potentially deep collaboration between the genius of neuroscience and the artistry and skill of peacebuilding. This became particularly obvious as the group honed in on stereotypes and the social, religious, and political problems of Islamophobia in the U.S.

Tim Phillips (foreground left) of Beyond Conflict and Jeremy Ginges (foreground right), from New School for Social Research, listen to presenters. – Photo: El-Hibri Foundation

Insight from our study of the brain highlights our high level of dependence on social norms. What would it take, the group asked, to create a new paradigm, a completely new framework for every day people to encounter the “other” in a manner where old norms and stereotypes are ineffective?

Part of this question involves recognition of the cognitive functions that take place when humans come into contact with “others.” Old norms and culturally ensconced bias take over, and the rider on the elephant loses control. Neurologically, we know that this is not a rational function. It is what’s loosely called unconscious bias. New frameworks have to be created in order to break down these embedded stereotypes.

There will be much more to explore here on both sides, but our first experience of unpacking the mutually beneficial partnership left us wanting more. The future of this collaboration between science and peacebuilding is rich and hopeful.

Photo: El-Hibri Foundation