In a study published last year, Bruneau and his colleagues looked at what happens in the brain when Jewish Israelis and Arabs read stories intended to evoke sympathy about members of each other's group. Participants read about children suffering physical or emotional pain such as by cutting themselves with a knife or losing a parent, for example. Brain scans carried out with fMRI machines showed these stories elicited similar patterns of activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, the brain region associated with sympathy, whether subjects read about members of their own group or about "the enemy". Interestingly, reading the same stories about the suffering of South Americans triggered a noticeably different response in this brain region and others involved in thinking about others' emotions. “The most poetic interpretation of that is these are the brain regions where the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference,” says Bruneau.
In a separate study, Bruneau and colleagues asked Israelis and Palestinians to write about the difficulties they faced because of the ongoing conflict. The accounts were then read by members of the opposing group, and feelings such as empathy, trust and warmth were measured using a survey. The researchers found the attitudes of the Palestinians towards the Israelis improved more when they were allowed to tell their stories, rather than listening, whereas Israelis' attitudes about Palestinians improved more after they listened to Palestinians describing their experiences.
The MIT research could hold some lessons for the US government, which spends over a billion dollars a year on trying to convince foreign audiences of its point of view, whether via radio broadcasting, or through the Pentagon’s foreign language news sites. “It’s interesting that we spend a lot of money as a country on the Voice of America [radio station],” Bruneau says, “when this research is starting to show that what might be most effective would be the ear of America.”
Line of defence
Beyond the question of better storytelling is a fundamental question about whether such research will actually help the Pentagon convince people that the US military is really there to help them. Tom Pyszczynski, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado who studies terrorism, says it’s not clear that understanding the neuroscience of violence, while an interesting scientific endeavor, will lead on its own to solutions to terrorism.
“We need to understand those things, no doubt about it, but, in terms of promoting peace I’m not sure that knowing where in the brain the anger that leads to violence is happening is going to help us discourage war,” says Pyszczynski, who has been studying the effects of the recent Arab Spring uprisings on attitudes towards the West. “We’re not going to be able to go in and zap people’s amygdalae or anesthetize them or do whatever,” he says. “We’re going to need to change the way they interpret things that happen and we’re going to need to stop doing things that people interpret as insulting or challenging to their way of life.”
For Pyszczynski, the potential for such work also raises an interesting ethical question reminiscent of the issues addressed A Clockwork Orange, both the 1971 film and the book on which it was based. “If you could somehow reliably change peoples’ minds so that they didn’t want to kill anymore, should that be done?” he asks. “Well, you’re impinging on their freedom in a way, but on the other hand you’re saving a lot of lives.”