Reading the Executive Summary of a presentation that will be given this week in Davos* reminded me of some of the problems with the use of neuroscience in conflict resolution: reductionism, for example. And reminded me that mediators should be paying as much (maybe more) attention to complexity as they are to neuroscience. Why, you may ask? Take a few minutes to read these well-written, easily-understood 7 pages titled "Perspectives on a Hyperconnected World: Insights from the Science of Complexity" and I think you will understand.
Taking just one example, that of reductionism, here's an excerpt from those 7 pages:
Most present-day leaders have been trained to assume that the world behaves according to simple rules. This mindset reduces complex facts, entities, phenomena, or structures to some simple notion. Reductionism totally ignores the phenomenon of emergence, i.e. the fact that the whole has properties that cannot be reduced to the properties of the parts. As complexity scientist John Holland notes, "For the last 400 years science has advanced by reductionism. The idea is that you could understand the world, all of nature, by examining smaller and smaller pieces of it. When assembled, the small pieces would explain the whole".
Reductionism and water
Water has the property of being liquid, but none of the molecules out of which water is constituted has this property. Liquidity is determined by the way the water molecules interact and the patterns resulting from this. These patterns are different for ice and for vapor.
Can you think of any examples where reductionism has been applied to the neuroscience of conflict resolution? Or even to mediation without the brain science? Where a conflict is treated as if it is ice or water when it is probably in fact vapor? I can.
*The presentation this week at the World Economic Forum will be given by Geoffrey West and Laszlo Barabasi, co-chairs of the committee that prepared the report. The whole committee is listed on page 8 here. Click to read my interview of Irene Sanders, one of the committee members. See also this post.
In even just a few years, we will look back at our assertions about the brain and be amused at our degree of certitude. There are many reasons people forget that we are still in neuroscience infancy: need for closure about how the world works, desire to make people behave as we want, impulse to make our client's problems easier to solve and conflicts quicker to resolve, plus many other motives. Unfortunately, we still don't know enough to accomplish more than minimally, if at all, any of those goals by using brain science.
Every so often, it is helpful to pull back on the reins of the racing, sometimes runaway, neuroscience horse. One effective rein-pulling technique is to remind ourselves of what we don't know. This morning, to remind myself of vital information we are missing, I read "Top 5 Unsolved Brain Mysteries" at howstuffworks. Excerpt:
When you compare the brain's detectives, neuroscientists, to other detectives, the neuroscientists seem to fall short in solving mysteries. After all, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple needed only about 250 pages each to get to the bottom of their cases. Ditto for Nancy Drew. ...
The workings of the brain, however, determine such fundamental questions about personhood that we may never know everything about what's going on. That doesn't mean we can't speculate, though. While we may not be able to solve these capers with clues that point to Colonel Mustard in the library with a revolver, we can dive into the current thinking on some of the brain's famous unsolved mysteries. ...
Click on over to the site to read about five mysteries: Nature versus nurture, why the brain stops functioning, sleep and dreams, memory, and consciousness.
For people who insist that we do know a lot about the brain that can be used in conflict resolution, I recommend reading Psychology's Ghosts. Don't have time to read the whole book? Then just read the chapter titled "Missing Contexts" to understand why much that is learned in the laboratory is not necessarily applicable in, or even relevant to, our world beyond the research lab.
These are more than just children' games [referring to the above illusions—click for more]. Think about them for a moment and they become frightening. If the "reality" of these simple things is so illusive, how much more illusive is the reality of more complex things? When I walk down a street, in what sense do I see "reality"? But, you might argue, these diagrams were designed to fool the viewer. Perhaps ordinary seeing and hearing are not set up that way. How do you know? -Lawrence B. Slobodkin, Simplicity and Complexity in Games of the Intellect
Is complexity the essence of reality's illusions? A comfort with uncertainty? A view of many elements at the same time? Ways elements of a situation or system interact with each other? A science not easy to understand? A buzzword growing in popularity in the world of conflict resolution?