But stories aren’t the only way to increase trust. Zak has also experimented with having subjects spray oxytocin into their nose, but it's not an approach that would have practical applications for the military, he cautions. The government is not looking to “just spray oxytocin into the crowds,” he says. “That, first of all, would be highly unethical and illegal, and it wouldn’t work anyway. You have to get a lot into the brain.“
While Zak is focusing on oxytocin, other researchers working with Darpa’s support are trying to understand the parts of the brain responsible for values and ideals. Emory University professor Greg Berns, a neuroeconomist, recently conducted an experiment that involved paying people to give up their fundamental ideals and beliefs. Participants were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner while statements based on answers they had previously given on a questionnaire were presented on a screen. Topics related to either core beliefs such as views on gay marriage, sex with children and the sterilization of people with genetic conditions, or less fundamental matters such as preference for PCs or Macs.
The volunteers were then offered up to $100 to sign statements disavowing their previous views. Perhaps unsurprisingly, more were willing to take money to change position on things like whether they were a cat person rather than a dog person than were willing to do so to shift their stances on whether they would accept money for sex, for example. More interestingly, Berns found that fundamental values, such as those concerning sex and belief in God, triggered activity in a part of the brain called the left temporoparietal junction, while more every-day belief statements stimulated activity in the entirely separate left and right inferior parietal lobes.
These findings, suggests Berns, means there is a biological basis for ethnic conflict. “Many of the conflicts that we currently face internationally are ultimately about control of biology,” says Berns. People may say they are fighting for ideas, but what they are really fighting for, according to Berns, is for values connected to survival, such as reproductive rights. “Things like religion are placeholders for that; what we’re seeing is a very Darwinian struggle for limited resources,” he says.
Berns, like the other researchers involved, says the Darpa program is about finding ways to stop people from fighting, not controlling them. “It’s not about brainwashing people," he says. "We’re not in the business of reading people’s minds, or implanting thoughts. By understanding the biology of what causes people go to war, we might begin to understand how to mitigate it.”
Whether creating better narratives can help reduce conflict is still an open question, however. Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have been studying the role of stories and dialogue on those involved the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in particular, how stories affect sympathy for others.
“I think there’s a perception out there that if someone commits these horrible atrocities to another group that they must be sociopaths, they must be psychopaths that lack empathy for other people,” says Emile Bruneau, a post-doctoral fellow at the Saxe Lab at MIT, which is not funded by the Darpa programme. “But, I think it might be very different, that they might actually be highly empathic people, but their empathy is highly regulated so that it’s applied strongly to in-group members but not at all to out-group members.”