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We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Neuroscience of Peacebuilding

dove-of-peaceBy Robyn Short

The world has always been a place of conflict. There have been time periods of enlightenment and time periods of profound oppression, but one thing has always been constant—human beings are wrought with conflict. The United States was founded on rather enlightened concepts. The Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And yet, in a nation where equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are considered to be unalienable rights, we lead the world in gun violence and incarceration. Although we are one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the United States has a child poverty rate of 23.1 percent—it is second only to Romania among 35 developed nations. Although we are a democratic government “of the people, by the people, for the people,”the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in 2010 allowing corporations to essentially buy votes by lifting bans on corporate political campaign giving, positioning the government to be of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations. All of this begs the question, “What is going on in America?” which should beg the next question, “What can I do to change this?”


Peace and the Brain

Peace is possible. In fact, if we are to survive as a human species on this planet, peace is inevitable. A friend once said, “It always gets complicated before it gets simple.” Although this statement was made in reference to workplace interior design solutions, the statement is quite profound and can be applied to most conflict situations. The state of our human existence confirms this truth. We have complicated this human experience, and yet, it really is quite simple: the Bible calls for us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you;” Gandhi instructed us to “be the change you wish to see in the world;” Jesus taught us to “to love our neighbors as ourselves;” and the Buddha so wisely taught that “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”

What we think, we become. What we sow, we reap. The neuroscience behind this spiritual teaching is that neurons that fire together wire together. In other words, as we think new thoughts we literally change our brains as new neural networks are created. My friend Laura Lewis summed this up nicely, “Change your mind, change your matter.” As we change our brain through intentional thought, we change our actions. As we change our actions, we change the world around us. The converse is also true: as we cease having certain thoughts, those neural networks disconnect and cease to exist; when those thoughts cease, the actions associated with them also cease. When we focus and meditate on peace, we rewire our brains for peace. So we think, so shall we be. As we turn our focus to a certain experience, we create that existence through our focused intentions. It is often said that “practice makes perfect,” but when it comes to the brain, those in the neuroscience community know that practice makes permanent. And so it is that focusing upon peace will bring about permanent peace in this world—eventually.

Our brains are profoundly powerful. We are all endowed with the powerful gift of creation, and we have the ability to choose what we create, and we are always creating. We can choose to create peace, or we can choose to create separation from peace. We are granted the power to choose, which is the power to create the reality of our existence. As we choose peace, we transform. And as we transform as individuals, the world around us transforms in response. Peace is possible. It always has been, and it always will be. The choice is ours.

In order to bring about a profound shift for peace in this nation, and in the world, we must all learn peace-promoting alternatives to conflict. Conflict is innate to our human existence. Conflict provides opportunity for growth, healing, deepening of relationships and so much more. The goal for the peacemaker is not to eliminate conflict but rather to assist in facilitating it through peace-promoting methods, one if which is asking peace-promoting questions.


Overcoming Obstacles on the Path to Peace with Peace-Promoting Questions

peace1In his book, The Third Side, William Ury makes the claim that “Whatever the surface issues in dispute, the underlying cause of conflict usually lies in the deprivation of basic human needs like love and respect. Frustration leads people to bully others, to use violence, and to grab someone else’s things.” He goes on to claim that we all want to feel “safe, respected and free.” Our basic needs are quite simple, and yet we have really complicated it. Asking peace-promoting questions can help those in conflict begin to understand that all parties on all sides of a conflict most likely share the same goals: to feel safe, respected and free. Once commonality is established, the parties can understand that while there may be a lot of work that goes into arriving at a peaceable agreement, they are much more similar in their needs than they are different.

Diagnosis bias. In the book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviors authors Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman present ideas for what causes people to make irrational decisions, which by their very nature can lead to conflict. One such obstacle is the concept of diagnosis bias. The authors write, “the moment we label a person or a situation, we put on blinders to all evidence that contradicts our diagnosis.”

 Diagnosis bias example. In February, assistant U.S. Attorney Sam L. Ponder, a federal prosecutor from Texas, was strongly rebuked in court by Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor for asking a man during crossing examination, “You’ve got African-Americans, you’ve got Hispanics, you’ve got a bag full of money. Does that tell you—a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, ‘This is a drug deal?’” This common diagnosis bias in courts across the United States—that people of color are more likely than Caucasians to be involved in a drug deal—has led to a grotesquely disproportionate number of incarcerated African-American men in American prisons.

Was this a brain sensitive question on the part of the prosecutor? I think it was. By asking the defendant, an African-American, such a blatantly biased question, the prosecutor was most likely not expecting the man to agree to the diagnosis bias. The question quite possibly stimulated the man’s amygdala, which might elicit an angry, fearful or other “fight or flight” response rather than a rational and thoughtful response. However, I suspect the question, though directed at the defendant, was actually intended to stimulate the reticular activating system of the jurors by conjuring images of African-Americans in urban areas exchanging money and drugs in parking lots, an image that is constantly reinforced by entertainment media and news media, but most likely not reinforced in most people’s real life experiences. While Sotomayor’s rebuke was appropriate, Ponder’s attempt at putting blinders to all evidence that might contradict his diagnosis was established. It may or not have had the intended affect he hoped for with the jury, but there was also no way the jury could “un-hear” the question. The defendant received a 15-year sentence.

This grossly inappropriate question could have been asked in a brain sensitive manner that afforded the defendant the opportunity to recall the details of the situation without stimulating his amygdala and without creating a potential diagnosis bias amongst the jurors. By simply asking, “Can you help us understand the details of the situation?” this brain sensitive question might activate the pre-frontal cortex as the person sought to recall non-emotional details of the situation rather than field the sweating, heart-palpitation and other adrenaline-rushing side effects of an overly activated amygdala. Perhaps the outcome would have been different, perhaps not. The process would most certainly have been more peace promoting.

As a professional peacemaker, it is crucial to be aware of the human brain’s tendency towards diagnosis bias in order to thwart it. Keeping an open mind, maintaining an attitude of curiosity and asking a lot of questions can help all parties better understand one another and avoid diagnosis biases.

Loss aversion. Another example of an obstacle on the path to peace is the concept of loss aversion. Brafman and Brafman explain that our natural tendency to avoid the pain of loss can distort our thinking when we place too much focus on short-term goals. As identified earlier in this article, the criminal justice system in the United States is a system in need of reform in order for a significant shift towards peace to occur in this nation. Prosecutorial misconduct is becoming an increasingly discussed topic in the news due to the intense pressure for prosecutors to secure a win at all costs. Although determining an exact number is not possible, the Innocence Projects asserts that a staggering 50,000 to 125,000 innocent individuals are incarcerated in the United States.6 When human lives are the “cost” of a prosecutorial win, loss aversion becomes a tremendous obstacle for peace in our criminal justice system.

Loss aversion example. Holding a record for more wins than losses is a must for any criminal prosecutor hoping to advance in his or her career. Texas prosecutor Ken Anderson demonstrated how loss aversion swayed his decision his prosecution of Michael Morton in 1987 for the murder of Morton’s wife. A successful and quickly rising star of Williamson County’s district attorney’s office, Williamson relied heavily on Williamson County sheriff, Jim Boutwell, in his case against Morton. Although highly circumstantial evidence that could be used against Morton was highlighted in court, strong evidence pointing to his innocence (i.e., a blood-stained bandana near the home) was suppressed. Anderson went so far as to hide evidence from the defense that would undoubtedly have caused the jury to find Morton not guilty. Morton spent the next 25 years in prison, and Anderson rose to the rank of District Judge.

We will never know whether Anderson truly believed in Morton’s guilt or not, but what we do know for certain is that a “win at all costs” attitude can sway rational thinking. Loss aversion allows the brain to become susceptible to other sways of irrational thinking and inhibit the brain’s natural sense of curiosity, a characteristic crucial to asking brain sensitive questions.

Rather than asking questions to trap Morton, Anderson could have asked brain sensitive questions that would have helped the prosecution determine that they did indeed have the wrong guy. The following open questions would engage a person’s prefrontal cortex, neutralizing the amygdala (which would certainly be stimulated under an interrogation) and activating the rational, executive center of the brain:

  • Can you tell me what a typical day is like for you and your wife?
  • Walk me through the morning of _______?
  • How was this day different from a typical day?
  • Did you notice anything unusual as you drove to work that morning?
  • Help me understand the relationship you and your wife had?
  • Help me understand the reasoning behind xyz decision?


The above questions keep the flow of curiosity open for the person asking the questions, helping to avoid diagnosis bias. If a prosecutor always maintains a curious about a situation and asks open, brain sensitive questions designed to gather information versus pinhole a person into an already preconceived assumption of guilt, loss aversion can be circumvented.

Fairness factor. Human beings have a deep-rooted belief in fairness, which is experienced more as a process and not as an outcome. In other words, people are more interested in whether a fair process was applied versus whether a fair outcome was achieved. How is the fairness factor an obstacle to peace? “Fair” is a tremendously subjective term. In keeping with the criminal justice theme, let’s considerate the fairness of the consequences of two aggravated robberies (robbery with a deadly weapon). In Texas, an aggravated robbery carries a penalty of five to 99 years in a state prison and/or a fine of no more than $10,000.

Fairness factor hypothetical example. Malik was raised by a single mother in an urban ghetto. He has never known his father. In order to put food on the table his mother has resulted to prostitution. She does her best to keep Malik ignorant of her late night “job,” but she can see in his eyes that he knows. Malik does know, but what his mother doesn’t know is that many of those nights that she is out prostituting, in a desperate attempt to put food on the table and keep the lights turned on so Malik can do his homework and experience some semblance of normalcy, his uncle—who has offered to stop in on occasion and check on Malik—has been raping him. Two to three nights a week, Malik stares at the ceiling, trying desperately to block out this horrible, painful violation and betrayal. His mother has no idea. At 14 years of age, he is still a small boy, but he is unwilling to take the abuse anymore. He cannot bear another night at the hands of his uncle. The sight of his mother coming home in the wee hours of the morning with her spirit completely broken has pushed him past making reasonable decisions. He takes a gun he found at a neighbor’s house and goes to the convenient store. His plan is to rob the store, and get enough money to hopefully pay the bills for at least one month—one month of having his mom at home with him where they will both be safe. As he is running out of the store with $500 in his back pocket, he literally runs smack into a cop. He is arrested on the spot. Without any money for an attorney, he is appointed an attorney by the courts. He is certified as an adult and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He will be 55 years old the next time he walks free in the world.

William is 17 years old. He comes from a privileged background, as a matter of fact; the majority of his education has been in a boarding school in Connecticut. His father is an entrepreneur, and his mom is the go-to PR guru for local celebrities. William has everything money can buy. For as long as he can remember he has had an Amex in his name and a nanny at his beck and call. He has everything, except the attention of his parents. And he will do just about anything to get it. At 15 years of age, he got his first DWI. At 16 years of age, he got his second. When he was 17 years of age, he got his third. Did his parents notice? Sure, they showed up in court every single time and wrote a check to the “best attorney money can buy.” They were grateful that on the third DWI that William was sent to rehab and not prison. The weekend he got out of rehab, he went to a gun show, bought a gun in one last attempt to get his parents to notice him—he walked into the Ralph Lauren shop at the shopping mall in his town and robbed the place. He was in court soon thereafter. The judge found him guilty and fined him $10,000. His parents wrote a check on the spot.

The above examples are only partially hypothetical. The criminal justice system is chockfull of similar stories. Is this process fair? Is the vast array of possible outcomes fair? This type of “justice” is routine in the United States. Neither the process nor the outcomes are fair or morally acceptable. And both scenarios represent the result of the right questions not being asked at the right time by individuals in positions of authority both within the family and in the community.

As professional peacemakers, how might we create a system in which the right answers are asked at the right times in order to intervene in conflict and forge a path to healing? Whether working as a mediator, teacher, politician, attorney, parent, writer or any other leadership role, following the five tenets of leadership can help forge that path.


Five Tenets of Leadership

The five tenets of leadership are tenets all peacemakers should know and adhere to.

1) Model the way. Be the example. To create peace, one must be peace. And to be peace, one must be highly conscious of the many obstacles within ourselves that are barriers to peace. Whether it is attribution error, diagnosis bias, loss aversion, value attribution or other psychological obstacles that can sway us from perceiving a situation with objectivity, modeling the way is the critical first step. Maintaining an open mind and a curious mind are two actionable aspects of asking brain sensitive questions that get at underlying issues that can move people from positional thinking to solution-oriented thinking.

2) Inspire a shared vision. Creating a shift in the consciousness of a nation that has lost its way from its founding core principles requires bringing current meaning to our founding concepts. In my writing, I hope to inspire a shared vision by exploring brain sensitive questions and thoughtful and curious exploration of possible solutions to how Americans might bring healing solutions to those in our society whose basic needs for safety, respect and freedom have been jeopardized and/or violated. Through brain sensitive questions and a curious exploration of solutions, I can inspire a shared vision by writing about ways that we—as a society—might right our nation’s course so that the United States Declaration of Independence’s claim that  “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is resurrected in our national conversation as we as a nation rediscover our national identity.

3) Challenge the process. Media is an important aspect of social reform. As a peacemaker and writer, I think it is essential to not expose injustice but to also offer solutions for how we might correct those aspects of society that are in violation of all that which our founding fathers declared to be unalienable human rights. Utilizing neuroscience is an importance aspect of social reform.

4) Enable others to act. What is often missing in academic works and other journalistic endeavors tasked with exposing social injustices is a call to action with real actionable steps. We often hear that it is “time to change the conversation,” or it is time to “start a new conversation,” when in reality it is time to act. It is time to do something to alleviate the suffering in the world to heal those aspects of society that are wounded. In his book The Third Side, William Ury concludes with an actionable “Next Steps” section that offers steps for “third siders.” This is a wonderful example of how peacemakers may enable others to act. In my writing, I intend to use the material in this course to help others develop a better understanding of the brain in conflict so that when they find themselves either in conflict or as a “third sider” to a conflict, they too can have an understanding of the neuroscience of peace-building.

5) Encourage the heart. Innate to the human experience is the desire to receive acknowledgment and gratitude. And, when it comes to gratitude, giving is as rewarding as receiving. This tenet of leadership is as important to being an effective leader as it is to be an effective peacemaker.

The neuroscience of peace building begins with me. To consciously and continuously “be the change I wish to see in the world” is a journey and not a destination.

Robyn Short Blogger and Author

 has ghostwritten numerous books and is the founder of goodmedia press and goodmedia communications. She is a student of A Course in Miracles, a self-study system of spiritual psychotherapy. Robyn is a passionate believer in peace and social justice. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from Auburn University, a Masters of Liberal Arts from Southern Methodist University and will graduate with a Masters in Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution from Southern Methodist University in 2014. Robyn is the author of Prayers for Peace, and the forthcoming children’s book Peace People, co-authored with Nanon Williams.  Robyn is available for book signings and to speak on topics of peacebuilding and nonviolence, especially as it relates to these core issues. Contact Robyn by email.

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