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Surprising Science

How the Neuroscience of Violence Can Bring Peace

In an attempt to encourage sympathy across the battle lines of ethnic conflicts, neuroscientists are working with the Pentagon to better understand how violence works in the brain. 

What’s the Latest Development?

To diffuse ethnic conflicts and improve humanitarian missions, the Pentagon is teaming up with several research institutions to better understand the neuroscience of violence. In one experiment conducted by Gregory Burns, a neuroeconmoist at Emory University, subjects were paid to disavow their former beliefs, ranging from whether they preferred cats to dogs, to stronger issues like sex and belief in God. Burns found that a specific region of the brain was activated when people disavowed their more serious beliefs, suggesting there is a biological basis for ethnic conflict. 

What’s the Big Idea?

While international conflicts are often billed as ideological battles, Burns believes animus is motivated by some people’s desire to control the biological rights of others, like reproductive rights. And while the assumption is that people who involve themselves in violent conflict are sociopaths void of empathy, they may actually be highly empathetic people, but with a strong bias toward their in-group. Burns is working with DARPA, the military’s experimental research wing, to develop narrative structures which might elicit sympathy between opposed populations and across battle lines. 

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