In my previous post, I reminded us that our beliefs, understandings, and knowings, over which we fight or disagree, are embodied, incarnate in actual physical structures in our brains, neural networks or webs, what I like to call neural matrices of meaning. See Tim Hicks’ first post here.
These neural nets are formed in response to experience. We speak of formative experiences. In fact, all our experiences are formative. The encoding of (perceptual) experience in neural structures is the basis of learning, memory, and cognition. And it can be argued that what we know is who we are. Challenge what I believe or know and you challenge my identity. This is how we meet each other, as neural beings, our understandings of the world and ourselves embodied in neural structures.
As I noted in my previous post, like all parts of the body, the neural function of encoding experience has a number of characteristics that bear on how we meet each other and communicate across the divides between us. I’ll briefly mention four of these characteristics that are relevant to attempts to facilitate dialogue and agreement-building across differences.
First, the complex and dynamic neural structure that is the sum of what we know and who we are must be coherent and consistent. This means that we can hold only one view at a time. We see this analogized with optical illusions like the Necker Cube, the Rubin vase, or the well-known old woman/young woman drawing. We can flip back and forth between or among different understandings of the world, but in any given moment, we must believe one thing or another. Among other implications of this fact, new information must fit into our understanding, or our understanding must shift to fit the new information. This leads to the next characteristic, the stability/plasticity balance.
We love to learn but we are resistant to change. We are genetically prepared to learn the characteristics of our environment but also to depend on what we have already learned. There is a necessary balance between receptivity and skepticism. The capacity for new learning is constrained by prior learning. Learning is change, so there is a tension involved. Once something is learned, there exists a kind of inertia. We don’t abandon our beliefs easily (cf. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions).
In conflict resolving processes, we are asking people to change their minds. This is not just a figure of speech but a literal reality. We are asking them to change their bodies, to change some elements of their neural identity structure. Changing what we know changes who we are. This is no trivial matter. Under conditions of threat, we hold to our status quo. Therefore, we must ask what conditions are necessary for change in any given situation?
A third characteristic of the neural encoding function is that incoming stimuli activate our neural matrices. We respond to incoming stimuli one way or another, unavoidably. That’s the nature of our dynamic neural embodiment. We are activated by the world around us. What gets activated depends on a combination of the type of stimulus on the one hand and the state of our internal experience on the other. So, for example, we don’t see the person before us objectively as they are or hear what they say necessarily as they mean it, but rather we experience those parts of ourselves that are activated by the perception of their presence in the moment.
Following on the dynamic of neural activation is the continuum of delay between stimulus and response. Being activated by our perception of the other with whom we are in disagreement, we will be more or less able to delay our reactive response. Under conditions of threat, insecurity, or uncertainty, we are less likely to be able to delay our response, to allow time to consider and deliberate. One of the services provided by a third party is helping the parties in conflict to not respond so quickly.
There are additional characteristics of our neural embodiment that bear on how we communicate across differences, as I discuss in greater detail in my book, Embodied Conflict: the neural basis of conflict and communication. The point I want to briefly make here is that recognizing and understanding the neural basis of our experience may help us understand and work with the polarization we witness and wish to ameliorate.