Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

This is your Brain on Conflict: An unwritten chapter in conflict studies

In Intellectual History on April 1, 2010 at 9:24 am

The most interesting article I came across this morning was from the New York Times (big surprise), and concerned the use of fMRI in English departments. This is written by Patricia Cohen who has a nice niche in covering intellectual movements and happenings at the University (full disclosure, she broke a big story about my research a couple of years ago). Patricia has a knack for picking up on novel aspects of the life of the mind and putting them out there for discussion. This is quite important work really.

In this story we see how important data is for the advancement of knowledge. If you have ever been a student of mine you will have heard the phrase: “love your data.” This is always my advice for those who would attempt to get in the knowledge game, for while explanatory theory is the goal, the data are the way. There is nothing that will get your well connected and over educated peers going than a new set of findings. When you add a new technology of finding making, watch out! This is what we have with fMRI. In case you don’t know what that is, the simple answer is that it is a brain scanning technology that helps researcher to know where in your brain thinking is taking place, and from this to infer what you are thinking about.

The know-how is progressing apace and already most of  social sciences have a cognitive subfield with cross-over neuroscientists making waves. I remember a dinner in which I was trying to pitch an idea to the great Harvard sociologist Michele Lamont about the need for using fMRI as story telling devices. The idea was that given I knew a fair amount about the hard scientists who did this kind of work at the cutting edge, I suspected that they would benefit from the sociologist’s inborn constructionism and pragmatism in the approach to knowledge. The problem is that the brain scans will tell you how we think, but not necessarily why we think what we do. This is, as we have known since W.I. Thomas, a product of the definition of the situation. That is to say that our brains navigate culture. You have to know culture to know what it is about brains that is interesting.

Well it turns out that some savvy folks in English get this and are taking steps to hook up with neuroscientists to create a narrative science of literature. We will have to wait to see how this all develops, but it is a nice break from the forest in which the MLA has been lost since the advent of deconstructionism in 1966 ( I actually think that literary theory is fascinating stuff, but it is certainly a murky wood). The final line of the article is encouraging:

“It’s not that evolution gives us insight into fiction,” Mr. Flesch said, “but that fiction gives us insight into evolution.”

This makes it clear that we are not going to witness the dumbing down of literary criticism.

I have said before in private and I will say here in public that I think we are ready for a neuroscience of Conflict Resolution. To make this interesting, we will have to stick to our narrative guns and recognize that human beings are Moral Believing Animals and Christopher Smith has argued. We should use our fantastic access to participants in the most intractable of the world’s conflicts to see how antagonists react to the threat narratives of their own and of the opposing sides. We should put our theories to the test of these new telescopes of the mind and force them to fall into our interpretive schemes as opposed to drifting out our our theoretical bailiwicks to become second rate cognitive psychologists.

This will be hard to do, and I have done little about it since I had the idea several years ago, but let this be my first step by announcing that I would be interested in helping such a research paradigm get off the ground. So spread the word and let’s get this thing going.

  1. I have a blog focused on the topic of neuroscience of conflict resolution, and teach classes on the topic. Narrative is an important part of mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution.

    I enjoyed your post!

  2. Thanks Stephanie for replying. I am excited to hear that this idea is already developing and that my post has rooted out one of what I am sure are the many examples of work going on in this area already. Let’s keep this conversation going.

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