Can our brains be trained into respectful political dialogue? - study

Researchers built a unique synchrony-focused intervention and examined its effects on neural and hormonal responses among Jewish and Arab adolescents.

 Two young people demonstrating a lively conversation. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Two young people demonstrating a lively conversation.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Can anything minimize the serious polarization among groups in countries like Israel and the US? Eight sessions of dialogue-enhancing interventions among Jewish and Arab youth resulted in an impact on brain function, hormonal response, social behavior and attitudes towards the conflict and gains were retained seven years later.

Prof. Ruth Feldman, director of the Center for Developmental Social Neuroscience at Reichman University’s Ivcher School of Psychology, together with her research partners, examined whether it’s possible to build an intervention for teenagers from polarized groups in a society that has experienced multi-generational conflict, based on findings from the field of neuroscience. They wondered whether such interventions improve the brain’s reactions toward others and whether these improvements can be preserved over time.

Working with Drs. Shafiq Masalha, Moran Influs and Jonathan Levy, Feldman worked on new perspectives from neuroscience – particularly from social neuroscience – and the long-term research conducted in her lab on the “biology of love” and hatred.

The tools of dialogue

For the study, the researchers built a unique synchrony-focused intervention and examined its effects on neural and hormonal responses and communication behavior among Jewish and Arab adolescents. The intervention, entitled “Tools of Dialogue” is a manualized group intervention of eight meetings between Jewish and Arab teenagers.

Each meeting lasted about two-and-a-half hours and was held in groups of 12 boys or girls, half of them Jews and half of them Arabs. The sessions were led by two mediators, one Jewish and one Arab, both of whom have vast experience in facilitating Jewish-Arab groups.

Prof. Ruth Feldman, director of the Center for Developmental Social Neuroscience at Reichman University’s Ivcher School of Psychology. (credit: Reichman University)Prof. Ruth Feldman, director of the Center for Developmental Social Neuroscience at Reichman University’s Ivcher School of Psychology. (credit: Reichman University)

The meetings began and ended with a synchronous group ritual such as familiar songs, movement and expression exercises that released tensions and caused the group to unite – biologically and behaviorally – into one bio-behavioral unit. Then the topic of the meeting was introduced and the group was divided into pairs or groups of four, comprising Jews and Arabs who had worked on specific assignments on the topic to be presented to the group.

A focus on behavior

During the intervention, the researchers focused on behavior and the acquisition of behavioral tools for conducting dialogue, with the aim of teaching the youths how to foster a respectful dialogue with others even if they did not agree with their views to develop empathy with the other side, and understand the behavioral and mental obstacles to dialogue such as prejudice.

There was a conscious decision to avoid any discussion about the essence of the Jewish-Arab conflict or about “who is right” or “who is the victim.” If these topics came up, the focus was on the behavioral techniques of holding a discussion and how to keep two perspectives in mind, even when you believe in your own wholeheartedly.

“Our research findings showed that youth who received the intervention showed a broad and multidimensional bio-neurobehavioral change – and the intervention gains lasted for years,” said Feldman.

“Our research findings showed that youth who received the intervention showed a broad and multidimensional bio-neurobehavioral change and the intervention gains lasted for years,” said Feldman.

“This study is the first of its kind to show that an intervention based on increasing behavioral synchrony in groups engaged in intractable conflict stimulates the brain’s empathic response, attenuates the neural basis of prejudice, reduces the cortisol response (stress), increases oxytocin (love) and shapes interpersonal interaction that is more mutual and less hostile.,” she said.

“This change is evident in the participants even after seven years, and the youth who underwent the intervention developed more tolerant attitudes towards the other, believed in finding a solution, and were actively involved in initiatives for dialogue and peace as young adults.”