Emile Bruneau on important breakthroughs in science that can achieve peace and dissolve polarization

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Have you ever used social media to try to influence your friends? Did you ever wonder if your posts have the intended effect of changing minds or hearts?

If so, EMILE BRUNEAU, Director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania and lead scientist at the Beyond Conflict Innovation Lab, has some fascinating discoveries for you.

Emile is one of those rare leaders who can move easily between different worlds, navigating between the ivory tower and the real world, and translating them to each other. He is adept at creating evidence-based interventions using clear-cut scientific methodology. Then he can pivot and apply his work in real-time, for peace building and inter-group conflict resolution.

A warm idealism radiates from him. I didn’t expect an Ivy League researcher’s most frequent words to be “gentle” and “kind.” Then again, I learned that Emile Bruneau will surprise you.

Raised on a hippie commune in northern California, he first attended formalized school at age 12. He showed up to that first day of school in his stepmom’s sandals because he didn’t own a single pair of shoes. He chased his then-girlfriend to South Africa just as apartheid was crumbling, playing rugby with the white guys by day, doing activism work in black townships by night. Landing next in Sir Lanka for a friend’s wedding literally as the Tamil Tigers launched their surprise insurgency, he was able to interview dozens of rebels. From Belfast to the Middle East, he was exposed to the most complex group conflict our world could offer, all before he turned 30. You couldn’t have scripted a more perfect journey for a future peace and conflict researcher.

As he explains in this clip, he began to get curious about an ideological battleground closer to home. Could his research apply to the polarization of our American political landscape?

Like many of us, Emile is deeply troubled by the state of our democracy. His research found that strong Democrats and #Republicans rate the opposing party as low as ISIS. The most ardent strands of our two parties are as polarized as Israelis and Palestinians were during the height of the war in Gaza.

I never expected, naively perhaps, the hateful dynamics that infected so much of the globe to take root in modern day America. Maybe I’m guilty of American exceptionalism, hard as that is to admit. Seeing what we’ve become is shattering—the intrenched opinions, the hardness, the dehumanization of the group that supports the other candidate.Still, I never thought to ask: Can science save us?

Can deepening our understanding of the human brain save us from tearing our country and each other apart?

This was an important distinction for me. When we are relating on an interpersonal level, we’ve evolved to be compassionate and move towards connection. But as soon as we move to the group level, and perceive the other as a member of the opposition, our evolution—the hardwiring we intuitively fall back on—drives us apart.

According to Bruneau, emotional appeals to the heart may not be the answer in reducing our tendency to dehumanize and humiliate entire groups of people.

Breakthroughs in neurology and psychology are finding that the key is learning how to bring what is unconscious, our brain’s “automatic pilot,” into our conscious thought. Here is the chance to over-ride the “othering” legacy of our evolution. To create new neural pathways so that we no longer fall back on unconscious biases that promote the tribalism running rough shot in our country today.

This offers great hope.

As I confessed to Emile, so much about what we are trying to do here at 3-Minute Storyteller is shares stories to build understanding. I never even questioned if what we are doing was, in his language, “an effective intervention towards peace.” With the kindness and gentleness of a lama, Emile smiled broadly. “Just keep asking and opening into those questions, Shannon,” he tells me, “that is the perfect beginning.”

Find out more at Beyond Conflict .

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