Mind Over Brain Matter

As peacemakers interact with individuals in conflict, we sometimes marvel and sometimes grieve over our perceptions of the way people think. Easy decisions from the view of the “neutral and impartial third party” slip past combatants as they maneuver to either claim absolute victory in the moment or to navigate to a place of avoidance.

Because much of what we know in Western culture about mediation has been drawn from its association with the legal system, the profession has been greatly influenced by the need of lawyers to boil each conflict down to issues that are distinct, measurable, and, hopefully, devoid of emotion.

That’s why a large percentage of lawyers representing clients in mediation, pull the mediator aside to say, “Let’s stay away from the ‘touchy-feely’ talk today. The last thing my client needs is to get emotional.”

Somewhere, in a law school classroom, a germ of a thought is planted that sprouts into the idea that the best decisions are made in the absence of emotion. In fact, neuroscience is telling us something quite different. Michael Mauk, a neurobiologist in the Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Texas, says that decision-making is impaired to the same extent by overly high emotion as it is by a process that is sterilized of all emotion.

Dr. Mauk’s research (which centers on study of information processing and learning in the cerebellum and the prefrontal cortex) would indicate that the idea that thinking is merely a brain process and that the brain is merely a physical organ is inherently flawed. There is another entity — the human mind — that defies simple explanation and definition. And it is the non-material mind where ideas, beliefs, values and concepts reside.

The late American philosopher William Barrett found it ironic that science, which owes its very existence to the human mind, has largely discounted its reality. Writing in Death of the Soul: from Descartes to the Computer (Anchor Press, 1986), he notes that “history is, fundamentally, the adventure of human consciousness” and that “the fundamental history of humankind is the history of the mind.”

Vincent Ryan Ruggiero in Beyond Feelings: a guide to Critical Thinking (McGraw-Hill, 2008) details the physical components of human cognitive activities in the brain. He goes on to say, “The research that produced these insights showed that the brain is necessary for thought, but it has not shown that the brain is sufficient for thought.” (Ruggiero, p. 17)

In other words, there has to be more than grey and white matter stirring around in our heads — or even other places for that matter.

Thus, it is my contention (and the thinking of a majority of dispute resolution practitioners) that logic and rationale must be balanced with emotions and feeling to produce the best decisions.  Importantly, recent research in the hard sciences is supportive of that view and neuroscience topics top the list of discussions at conflict resolution conferences.

In coming articles, we will explore more evidence of the existence of the mind and  build logical and rational reasons (ironic, isn’t it?) for utilizing high levels of collaborative conversation in negotiation and mediation.

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