The brain and peace: The role of neuroscience in resolving conflicts

Charlotte Hamm and Carla Schraml

At the core of every conflict lies the human factor, encompassing a complex web of psychological elements such as values, trauma, compassion, and identity. Many insider mediators and indigenous leaders have long been aware of this, but Western peacebuilding has been strongly shaped by the rational actor model. The late 20th century saw a significant shift with the integration of social psychology into peacebuilding. Neuroscience further enriches our understanding by shedding light on the following:  

Neurological processes reveal the necessity of revaluating our practices

Carrot-and-stick-style negotiations, i.e. reward and punishment, is a common strategy for dealing with armed actors and conflict parties. However, new findings from neuroscience indicate that this might be counterproductive. War and conflict are at times rooted in what are described as ”sacred values”, such as a strong commitment to ideals like nationhood or religion. These deeply held beliefs can serve as a catalyst for conflict, driving individuals to defend them at all costs, even with their lives. This presents a significant challenge to the “carrot and stick” approach, which often involves offering humanitarian or development aid as incentives and employing sanctions as deterrents. Such strategies assume that armed actors are motivated by a cost-benefit analysis; a presumption that overlooks a profound attachment to sacred values.

Attempts to apply external pressure on individuals holding these values often backfire, leading instead to increased commitment and willingness to fight. However, a shift in behaviour has been observed when pressure originates from within the social groups or constituencies that the armed groups represent or protect. Neuroscientist Nafees Hamid's research, using brain scans from members of non-state armed groups (e.g. Lashkar-e-Taiba, Al Qaeda, PKK) shows that social rejection makes extremist groups' offers more appealing. Feelings of exclusion can further transform non-sacred values into sacred ones which increases the willingness to fight and die for them. Importantly, neuroimaging reveals that this propensity for conflict decreases when a critical exchange within the group itself took place, especially if a faction of the group begins to emphasise non-violent methods to defend sacred values. Brain scans highlight that the cognitive functions like problem-solving and logical thinking become more active with internal feedback than with external pressure. This reveals the profound impact of social factors — such as a sense of belonging, dignity, respect, and the relevance of influencing group norms (through intragroup work) over traditional material incentives in the context of negotiations.

Neuroscience helps to differentiate widely acknowledged assumptions

We constantly need empathic processes to navigate the social world, whether in interpersonal relationships or in inter-state negotiations. Professor for Social Neuroscience Veronika Engert distinguishes between empathy and compassion, two concepts often used interchangeably but with distinct neural underpinnings and implications for an individual's well-being.  Empathy involves sharing and understanding another's pain, which activates pain-related regions in the brain. While empathy allows for deep connections, it also poses the risk of emotional burnout for highly empathic individuals. Compassion, on the other hand, is characterised by the desire to alleviate another's suffering. Unlike empathy, compassion activates reward areas of the brain that are independent of pain regions, making it a source of resilience rather than a burden. This distinction between empathy and compassion is crucial in the context of trauma and negotiations. Engert's research suggests that fostering compassion not only helps mitigate the effects of PTSD but also enhances the effectiveness of negotiation processes. Compassion leads to interactions grounded in respect and dignity which is crucial for successful peace negotiations.

While cognitive and behavioural shifts require time, understanding these processes at a neuroscientific level allows for the identification of the most effective interventions. The Berlin Moot will serve as a platform to explore some of these tools and mechanisms, ultimately leading to evidence-based, concrete recommendations to support peacemaking efforts and the design of high-level peace processes.


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