On the pristine lawn of the Styron residence, where the pink and orange tones of sunset moved in above the gently-rocking sailboats of the Tisbury harbor, it was hard to imagine conflict lurked anywhere in the world.
And yet 85 Island residents and visitors had convened there last Wednesday night to discuss not just conflict, but its effect on the brain.
The event, the first of its kind on the Island, was presented by the Cambridge-based Project on Justice in Times of Transition, which is seeking to bring an understanding of neuroscience to diplomacy.
The Project on Justice in Times of Transition helps to solve conflicts at a political level, said Dr. Mohammed Milad, director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. But he and other neuroscientists associated with the project say peace can also begin with the individual and an understanding of psychology damaged by trauma.
”When people are feeling misunderstood or not understood as they see themselves, they cannot act rationally,” said project co-founder Timothy Phillips. Neuroscientists know this because when they look at images of the brain consumed with fear, the limbic system, which is associated with emotion, is lit up, while the rational faculties are inactive.
Mr. Phillips, a lifelong Island visitor, co-founded the organization in 1992 with Wendy Luers with the mission of exposing those embroiled in conflict to an outside perspective, and engaging them in dialogue with those who were once in their shoes.
“When you are in those situations, it’s not easy to see a way out,” said Ina Breuer, executive director of the project. She and her colleagues travel around the world to assist nations in transition. The project, soon to be renamed Beyond Conflict, began work in Northern Ireland, and has expanded its services to help facilitate talks in many countries including South Africa, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, and currently, in Bahrain and Kosovo.
Neuroscience has brought a new angle to their work, and inspired them to believe that resolution may be possible from a neurobiological perspective — even in places where conflict has reigned for decades or centuries, project leaders said.
“We are not naive to think it’s an overnight answer,” said Mr. Phillips. “But a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to be human is very empowering, as is the idea that people don’t act the way they do because they are Catholic or Protestant in Northern Ireland, but they act that way because they are human.” His hope is that an appreciation of a shared human experience will enhance understanding between parties.
The discussion took place at the home of Rose Styron, a founding board member currently associated in an advisory role. More than 20 years ago Mrs. Styron hosted a gathering of opposing parties from the conflict in Northern Ireland on the same lawn, and she invited Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
“The leaders of both sides wanted to come and sit with her, so they had to talk to each other,” Mrs. Styron explains. It was the first time they had come together socially, and it led to continued talks in Boston, and later in their home country.
Mrs. Styron was also a founding member of Amnesty International USA.
In Mr. Milad’s talk, he emphasized that fear, the result of social conditioning, often defines our interactions with perceived enemies. “When you see an individual from that conflict, your brain will actually respond out of fear,” he said. “Our emotions are triggered before we are even aware.”
“In conflict where the people have become traumatized, they become almost narcissistic out of self preservation, they become victimized, and when you become a victim, you lose agency, you lose a sense of hope, you think that things won’t get better, and that’s the reoccurrence of trauma and stress,” said Mr. Phillips. “Now there is actually brain science behind this that says, yes, change is possible.”
The project has begun assembling leaders from countries who have survived difficult transitions to democracy and leaders in current conflict situations. The groups come together to view images of the brain and discuss possible applications of the research to the situations they understand best.
People are not good or bad, Mr. Milad insists, rather some have been so altered by negative experiences that their emotions hijack their decision making, leading to actions that have little rational basis.
Most people do not choose to experience the elevated sense of anxiety associated with fear, he said.
“I think the majority of people are told what to fear, are fed information,” he said. He recommends that countries educate their leaders and their youth about the neurobiological bases of conflict, so as to stop fear from dictating the behaviors of citizens.
“I think it’s a long battle which needs to be fought,” he said.