Neuroscientist Probes the Mind for Clues to End Conflicts

Rebecca Saxe, Conflict resolution, Neurologist


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Could neuroscience hold the key to breaking down psychological barriers between groups in conflict? In this month's issue of Scientific American, contributor Gareth Cook interviews Rebecca Saxe, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about her work applying "theory of mind" to the discord between Palestinians and Israelis as well as conflicts between Arizonans who are Mexican immigrants and those who are U.S. citizens.

Theory of mind is a concept used to describe the capacity to deduce what someone else is thinking or feeling. Humans typically have this ability to empathize, a trait that helps us resolve our differences, Saxe says. Some groups' inability to trust or forgive another group as well as expectations of malice, however, can serve to perpetuate unrest.

The problem with many conflict intervention programs is that they are often based on preconceptions about what should work for standard groups of people who are at odds, according to Saxe. Unfortunately, these notions typically fall flat because mediators are unaware of the specific strategies that will work for particular individual groups, she adds.

Saxe sees neuroscience as a largely unexplored path to conflict resolution, one that would help researchers discover how and why thoughts and behaviors that propagate conflict are created. The neuroscientist also speaks at length about her work in this article and video posted by the nonprofit Edge Foundation in August.

Editor's Note (11/16/12): The headline for this story was edited after posting. The term "neuroscientist" was substituted for "neurologist."

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