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.

Brain Freeze

Growing up, I had an aversion to ice cream.

Photo Credit: Faris Mansor (flickr)









Don’t get me wrong, I loved it — perhaps too much. I loved it so much that I ate too much, too fast. And the result was always brain freeze. You know what I’m talking about. That intense pain right behind your eyes that won’t go away until it’s good and ready.

Perhaps my tendency toward brain freeze is somewhat attributable to physical conditions — the structure of my soft palate or my sinuses. However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to believe that most of the problem is a result of overload. I unwisely try to load up with too much ice cream at one time.

Overload is often the culprit when it comes to making good decisions. While the human brain is one of our most amazing and resilient organs, it is also one of the most delicate. The brain consumes a large amount of our total energy, has a relatively short, high-intensity work span, and is prone to distraction.

Periods of decision-making severely test our stamina. Add in a little emotion — or a lot of emotion — and you have the makings of a virtual brain freeze. (For some people, that even includes pain similar to ice-cream-induced agony.)

Conflict complicates decision making. As we deal with emotion, heightened physical responses, and constantly emerging options, the brain struggles. Decisions become increasingly difficult.

Conflict resolution professionals  work hard to create a safe and productive environment in which solutions can be created and tested. Yet, until recently, considerations about critical thinking and the way brains function were largely ignored.

The human brain works best when it is given time and space to function at its highest level. In the coming weeks, I will be sharing more about the way the brain works and how you can best harness its incredible power — and how to help others do the same.

I look forward to hearing your questions and comments.