Page last updated at 15:54 GMT, Thursday, 11 March 2010

Can our brains help us solve conflicts?

Couple back-to-back

By Elizabeth Diffin
BBC News Magazine

From industrial action to curfew battles, conflicts are everywhere. But what does neuroscience say about solving disputes and becoming better negotiators?

As word came down that talks between British Airways and their cabin crew union had broken down on Wednesday, two conflict resolution experts happened to be presenting a lecture on successful negotiation at the University of Oxford.

The presentation by Baroness Susan Greenfield and Jeremy Lack, "Understanding the Mind in Peace Negotiations", examined the link between neuroscience and conflict resolution.

In all conflicts - domestic, industrial, or global - there is no sure-fire means of resolution. But neuroscientists say that the brain can determine optimal ways to solve disputes, no matter their type.

"What we can't do is say this is the region [of the brain] for peace negotiation," says Lady Greenfield, a professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford. "What we can do is take cognitive and psychological concepts and try to optimize them [into] what will make your brain maximally receptive and innovative."

Gaining trust

In order to successfully resolve a conflict, Lady Greenfield says you must first understand the other person's perspective. Key is knowing that a person's brain is shaped by the factors to which they've been exposed.

This is known as the brain's "plasticity", or ability to change. Lady Greenfield says that simply telling children about the brain's plasticity - proving their ability to learn - can drastically improve their educational performance.

Brain scan
The brain's ability to change is the basis of conflict resolution

"Understanding different minds is quite important," Lady Greenfield says. "If you understand that, you're more empathetic."

Empathy, in turn, leads to trust.

Jeremy Lack, a lawyer and mediation expert with a background in neuroscience, says there are some practical ways of gaining trust. He teaches a form of active listening called "looping" - repeating what you've just heard without any judgment.

For the other party, hearing what they've just said can be a wake-up call. It can also demonstrate the person's trustworthiness because they're making the effort to understand the other side's point of view.

"[Looping] is a completely different style of listening," Mr Lack says. "You can't be logical and angry at the same time."

Adopting a non-emotional stance

Peace talks, industrial action disputes, and family quarrels often break down because one side or the other is unable to emotionally disengage.

"When people are highly aroused, words have little impact," Lady Greenfield says. "That's the kind of mode you don't want."

In order to determine what leads to this state, she examined the brains of children, who tend to be highly emotional and reckless, as well as the brains of gamblers, obese people, and schizophrenics.

All of these people, who "give into the press of the emotion over the cognitive", have something in common - an underactive prefrontal cortex. This segment accounts for one-third of our brains, and if, in extreme cases, it's damaged, we revert to a childlike state.

Barak, Clinton, and Arafat
Bill Clinton once acted as mediator between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat

Lady Greenfield says in conflict resolution, the parties should avoid "highly arousing" environments that could lead to irrationality. Instead, she recommends a familiar, unchallenging, and bland atmosphere - such as a beige hotel room.

She also says a neutral third party, such as a friend, arbitration service, or statesman, can act as "Mr or Ms Beige" and guide the conflict resolution.

Mr Lack points out that while a third party is important, the type of person can have an impact on how well the conflict is solved. He believes it's most effective to use a "mediator" who simply controls the negotiation process and cannot pass a sentence - as opposed to a judge who makes the final decision.

Shifting to a new perspective

The brain's plasticity means that humans are able to form new neurological connections when they bring together ideas, Lady Greenfield says.

For instance, in an experiment with people who had previously never played the piano, practising five-finger exercises - or simply thinking about the exercises - led to new connections in their brains.

Piano playing
Even thinking about playing the piano can change the brain

Mr Lack says it can be as basic as reframing negative things as positive ones, known as the "framing effect".

He cites studies where people are given £50 and told they can keep £20 or lose £30 - and gamble the rest. Those who opt to keep the money tend to be wary of risk, while those who lose it are much more risk-seeking.

"They get interpreted differently," he says. "Different parts of the brain are active."

He also says that the environment can have a positive effect on creativity. For instance, US and Soviet disarmament negotiators famously went on a "walk in the woods" to help them devise new plans.

"At the end of the day, it will be a matter of the comfort of the parties," he says.

Identifying a shared need or value

According to Lady Greenfield, the resolution "has to be something where both people feel they are winning".

Mr Lack says each party should be very clear about their own interests.

"Surprisingly, the interests are seldom in competition," he says. "But when you see the other person as a competitor, you will start to use [neurological] pathways through the prism of 'this is something to be feared'."

When a person is in a state of fear, their brain does not create oxytocin, a chemical sometimes called "the trust hormone". Research has shown that inhaling a nasal spray of oxytocin makes people trust strangers with their money.

Crossword puzzle
Doing a crossword puzzle or sudoku can make you less emotional

Lady Greenfield likens the negotiation process to completing a crossword puzzle together - an objective quest with a clear endpoint.

In fact, a recent study out of Harvard University recommends using crossword puzzles or Sudoku to activate the prefrontal cortex and limit an emotional response when a couple is quarrelling.

If the other party still isn't willing to compromise, Lady Greenfield says it's important to create an environment that leads them to "adopt a more cognitive response" by not shouting, moving around, or doing something unexpected.

"It's not as if you can take a magic pill," she says. "We're creating an environment where the brain can be at its best."

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