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The wiring of the human brain can make conflict worse

This blog post observes that most of us react to external stimuli reflexively and instinctively. As a result, we often misperceive, exacerbating conflict. The task for mediators in defusing conflict, is to help people engage reflectively, using their cognitive skills, not their ‘fight or flight’ responses.

In considering insights from neuroscience into understanding human conflict, many of the following observations are informed by my understanding of an article by Lack & Bogacz (L&B). (1)

L&B argue humans’ brains are hardwired neuro-biologically, (2) explaining how humans react to external stimuli and how they internally generate a response. They describe the brain as having three independent but interconnected parts:

  • The reptilian brain-the area containing our basic automatic survival instincts: fight, flight or freeze.
  • The limbic brain- the area where senses (hearing etc) are located and from where emotions are generated. From this area comes our first response to any stimuli. L&B describe it as a rapid relevance and detection system, which instinctively assesses without initial conscious cognitive appreciation whether something is dangerous and to be avoided, or a reward to be approached (“away” or “towards” reflexes). This area also contains the amygdala, where feelings of fear, safety and pleasure are generated and appreciated; as well as primary emotions like anger and sadness. This is where X-system reflexive emotional cognition comes from. (3)
  • The neocortex- the area where we do all high order thinking and non-emotional cognitive appreciation; the rational part of our brain. This is where C-system optimal decision-making is done. (4) The neocortex is closely regulated and connected to the amygdala, feeding back to it and helping regulate (dampen) raised emotional responses following conscious cognition and reflection.

The limbic brain, including the amygdala, is like a switch. If it senses danger, it triggers the non-thinking reptilian brain’s survival instinct causing flight etc. Contrarily, if it senses reward the neocortex is switched on and conscious thinking follows. In the limbic area senses (perceptions) of external stimuli (e.g. shouting) are scanned by an unconscious cognitive emotional appraisal system which will decide like-go forwards; or don’t like-run away.

L&B’s model “emphasises the primordial importance of emotions as the basis for all perception and subsequent cognitive thinking, which can only occur downstream of and after unconscious, emotional appraisal of stimuli and data has occurred”. (5)

The brain has limited finite resources (glucose and oxygen) provided to it. Lieberman (6) postulates that to conserve energy, humans function most of the time in reflexive   X –system   mode relying on learned patterns of previous experience available subconsciously; and relying on cognitive unconscious reflexes from the limbic system (autopilot). Consequently, most humans will first appreciate conflict in this unthinking state. We seldom use reflective mode thinking or C-system behaviour, as this requires high concentration use of the outer cortex, leading to fatigue.

L&B observe that memory doesn’t record actuality, but records patterns- providing a script for future behaviour. Memory rationalises and justifies unconscious limbic driven decisions after the event to avoid us feeling cognitive dissonance; even though decisions may have been wrong! This doesn’t help us acknowledge our contribution to conflict. We are far more sensitive to danger/fear than to reward, meaning that in conflict our “away” reflex will predominate, not allowing us to engage in thoughtful dialogue with our opponent (neocortex). This leads to increased anger, reduced thought and less cooperation.

L&B note that “functional neuroimaging……….suggests that a part of the brain….the Anterior Insular Cortex (AI) is consistently involved in empathy, compassion and interpersonal phenomena such as fairness and cooperation”. (7) L&B suggest humans react negatively to unfair behaviour- a 50-50 split is fair; a 99-1 split is not. In experiments reflecting this, they note interaction within milliseconds between the AI  and part of the frontal complex, before there could be any cognitive conscious decision-with a negative reaction to behaviour perceived as unfair.

L&B postulate that humans are social animals and want to trust, relate to and empathise with others. They say this may be neuro-biologically driven; noting that:

  • The presence of a neuropeptide oxytocin in our brain increases trust in humans in-group; conversely leading to aggressive/defensive behaviour and lack of trust towards people out of group.
  • The presence of mirror neurons in human brains activates the same neurons in observers as displayed in the behaviour of observees. Mirror neurons allow us to have natural empathy. This works in-group: if one of us is upset so are the rest. It works less well out of group.

L&B suggest humans need autonomy to feel in control and able to choose; that control is a neuro-biologically driven imperative for survival.

What does this mean for mediators’ practice and technique? It’s clear that the consequences of neuroscience are that people are not reflective when resolving conflict in their natural reflexive instinctive state. Our instinctive emotionally driven reactions in X-system mode stop us behaving thoughtfully because our brain makes decisions before we have a chance to think reflectively in C-system mode.

Applying these observations in conflictual situations, there are a number of imperatives for mediators. People are angry with each other, or scared. They are not thinking clearly- their “away” reflexes are engaged. A mediator needs to calm people down– reduce anger and fear. People need reassured that conflict can be resolved if they listen to each other, and hear the other’s perspective. He needs to help people verbalise their emotions, moving away from X-system reflexive behaviour and towards the C-system reflective behaviour.

If meeting a conflictee privately, the mediator must build trust and empathy, creating an in-group feeling. He must hear what the conflictee says. He must replicate the process with the other conflictee. He must generate the same in-group behaviour between conflictees, so they hear each other:  C-system expression of thought. He needs to be able to help parties perceive each other’s perspective of issues. This enables empathy, creating the possibility of in-group discussion, where issues can be seen as external- to be solved to mutual satisfaction. This requires mediation to be more than simply a facilitative deal-making process. It’s also a social process leading towards cooperation and away from conflict.

Two more recent mediation techniques seem attuned to insights from neuro-biological science.

Firstly, Transformative Mediation (TM) developed by Bush & Folger. (8) They contend that humans have inherent capacities; strength (autonomy of action) and responsiveness (connection to and understanding of others). When humans are in conflict, they describe them as being weak and self-absorbed, alienated and demonising of the other – they are in a negative spiral. This can be reversed with help from the mediator. People don’t remain caught in conflict – they become calm, thoughtful, decisive; and shift from weakness to strength.

In doing so they become open, trusting and understanding of the other party. As they become strong themselves and are empowered, they can give recognition to the other; because at the centre of human identity there is a dual sense of both individual autonomy and social connection. (9) The mediator’s job is to support people’s deliberations and decisions; to support their empowerment and recognition shifts. The moral underpinning principle of TM is that empowerment is a shift from weakness to strength allowing recognition. This is clearly recognition of the need in mediation to move people away from X-system anger towards C-system thought; enabling development of in- group empathy and dialogue.

Secondly, Narrative Mediation (NM) espoused by Winslade & Monk. (10) Engagement is the first part of the NM process. The mediator must establish direct intimate relationships with conflictees – each must be able to trust him. Language, even the mediator’s vernacular patterns, is crucial- we must all be able to understand each other. NM is a co-creative practice – the parties are partners.  Concentrate on finding out, not fault finding- be curious.

Storytelling is the next part. This is about joining the conflictees in an alliance against the effects of the conflict by externalizing it and making it the out of group enemy. Next is deconstructing the conflict-saturated story (CSS). The mediator has to separate the conflictees from the CSS. People have assumed Positions in the conflict. I am the victim – you are the villain. These positions also have to be deconstructed.

Part of deconstructing the CSS is about deconstructing the dominant discourse within which the dispute has taken place and which has contributed to the conflict; thus allowing the creation of an alternative story where the absence of the dominant discourse will assist and allow reconstruction. All the processes are about continuing, engaging and curious dialogue; creating a new in-group with trust and empathy.

Both techniques reflect approaches that use insights from neuroscience to mediate conflict; and both develop the idea of mediation being a useful social process encouraging cooperation and leading away from conflict.

Posted by Paul Kirkwood, director of – Mediation, Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Services.


  • J Lack & F Bogacz The Neurophysiology of ADR and Process Design: A New Approach to Conflict Prevention and Resolution? Contemporary Issues in International Arbitration and Mediation: The Fordham Papers 2012 p’s 33-80
  • Ibid, p39
  • M D Lieberman, Social Cognitive Neuroscience: A Review of Core Processes, 58 Annual Review of Psychology, 259, 259-89 (2007) quoted in L&B (n1) p46
  • Ibid
  • Lack (n1), p38
  • Lieberman(n4)
  • Lack, (n1), p45
  • Bush& Folger The Promise of Mediation 2005, Chp 2, p41-84
  • Ibid, p60 per Della Noce
  • Winslade & Monk Narrative Mediation-A New Approach to Conflict Resolution 2001, Chp3, p57-93


J Lack & F Bogacz The Neurophysiology of ADR and Process Design: A New Approach to Conflict Prevention and Resolution? Contemporary Issues in International Arbitration and Mediation: The Fordham Papers Martinus Nijhoff Publishers 2012

Bush& Folger The Promise of Mediation 2005

Winslade & Monk Narrative Mediation-A New Approach to Conflict Resolution 2001