Understanding Conflict, part 1: The Biological Dimension

Peacebuilding is a multi-faceted endeavor. Numerous activities, players, and approaches make up its practice.[1] Among the many threads composing the fabric of peacebuilding is that of mediation. Colin Craig’s Dialogue for Peaceful Change (DPC) engages this thread of peacebuilding, practicing mediation in Northern Ireland and numerous other countries throughout the world. Having participated in DPC’s “Training of Facilitators” in February of this year, I developed a deeper understanding of the roots of conflict and constructive approaches for its resolution and transformation. Through reflection on the DPC process and relevant academic literature, this short series will explore briefly the nature of conflict – biologically and socially – and positive responses to conflict, primarily through the lens of mediation.

Biological Dimension of Conflict

Conflict is a natural part of human existence. Neurologist David Eagleman notes in his book Incognito that “the human brain runs on conflict.” Humans “contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman wrote, and these multitudes are engaged in “chronic battle.” Eagleman describes brains as “representative democracies,” in which essentially short-term desires (like craving chocolate cake) and long-term cost-benefit analysis (like the consideration of the health implications of indulging the cake craving) compete for leverage until one gets the proverbial majority of votes (Eagleman, 107-111). Pursuits of conflict transformation do not aim to eliminate conflict, as this is both “impossible” and “undesirable,” since conflict is integral to social change. Rather, conflict transformation hopes to avoid destructive, violent conflict. Thus, as DPC rightly asserts, in order to keep conflict from becoming destructive, it is necessary to have an understanding of the biological and social roots of violence and destructive conflict.

Over the millennia, humans have evolved more sophisticated survival instincts. In tense or life-threatening situations, the blood in our brains rushes into a small section known as the amygdala. In her fascinating book The Biology of Violence, neurologist Debra Niehoff writes that “when the amygdala is up and running, its job is to match the sight of an approaching peer with cortical data on past experience, rank, and context.” Based on this research, the amygdala then assigns a “corresponding emotional label … and initiate[s] an appropriate cascade of autonomic, endocrine, and behavioral responses” (93-99). The amygdala gives social relationships meaning and creates the possibility for appropriate social responses.

Our bodies respond to life-threatening situations by shutting down all non-essential functions, such as digestion, sexual functions, and the immune system. When the amygdala is blood-filled and active, rational collected thought processes are essentially impossible. During the DPC workshop in Northern Ireland, Colin Craig noted that the Chief of Police in New York City instructs hostage negotiators under his employ that their job, simply put, is to facilitate the redistribution of blood from the amygdala to the rest of the brain. Awareness of the biology of the brain is terribly important when it comes to gauging appropriate responses to violence and conflict.

As Eagleman writes, “emotional and social disturbances” result from damage to the amygdala. Here he notes the example of Charles Whitman, who killed thirteen people and wounded thirty-three others in a university shooting in Austin, Texas in 1966. Upon autopsy, examiners found a brain tumor encroaching on the amygdala and hypothalamus. This tumor, Eagleman argues, is responsible for Whitman’s actions. He had no real control over his actions (Eagleman, 151-153). When an individual has “lost it,” therefore, biologically this is true to some extent, as he or she has lost the ability to make reasoned, rational choices. Thus, attempting to discuss a cost-benefit analysis of violence with two men in an all-out pub fight is futile, as their brains are not capable of any such reasoned discussion at that time.

It is important to note that people do not start out on an even playing field, so to speak. Through thorough, compelling analysis of the interplay between neurology and environment, Eagleman concludes that

“people are not created equal … [The] myth of human equality suggest[s] that people are equally capable of decision making, impulse control, and comprehending consequences. While admirable, the notion is simply not true” (Eagleman, 187).

Some people are genetically more predisposed to violence than others. Different genes can increase the probability of aggressive, anti-social behavior, though it does not guarantee its emergence.[2]

One’s environment plays a significant role in developing modifiable behavioral capacities or anti-social tendencies. Take for example that most child molesters were themselves molested as children. Though not everyone who suffers creates more suffering for others, people tend to recycle abuse. Regarding “nature vs. nurture,” the answer is almost always both. Niehoff notes that the linkage between brain and behavior is not linear, but rather “circles back and forth between the world on the inside of the brain and the world on the outside.” She notes that ideally this relationship between inner and outer worlds produces a

“well-adapted, fully functioning human being. But when the interchange has been hostile, unrewarding, or unproductive … the dynamic interplay … [often] degenerates into a vicious circle, spiraling toward violence and rotating compulsively back to fear” (Niehoff, 52).

To gain some understanding of this outside world, I will turn to the social dimensions of conflict in the next post.

[1] This was illustrated experientially in the Lego exercise at the Dialogue for Peaceful Change workshop in Corrymeela. Divided in small groups, each group had a contractor, at least one architect, and at least one builder. The goal was to replicate an abstract Lego creation constructed by the facilitator. The contractor’s task was to negotiate with other contractors for needed Lego pieces. The architect(s), the only ones who could see the original creation, were to describe the design to the builder(s), who were the only ones permitted to touch the Lego pieces. What I quickly discovered was that without a continual flow of communication between all three levels (top, middle, lower), the task would be impossible. All levels were necessary, and all levels needed to be interacting.

[2] Eagleman goes so far as to conclude that the question of “blameworthiness” is in fact the wrong question to ask regarding crimes committed. He argues that “there is no meaningful distinction between [someone’s] biology and his [or her] decision making. They are inseparable.” Thus, Eagleman suggests that “criminals should always be treated as incapable of having acted otherwise. The criminal activity itself should be taken as evidence of brain abnormality” (177).


  1. Neil Christy says:

    Fascinating – especially Eagleman’s comment, “criminals should always be treated as incapable of having acted otherwise. The criminal activity itself should be taken as evidence of brain abnormality” I am certain there is much push-back and outright denial of this statement in nearly all of our criminal justice system. That throws a whole new light on restorative justice as opposed to retributive.

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