When we think about some of the largest intergroup conflict between different groups and races, it is likely that we automatically attribute the conflict to politics – a lack of consensus that results in fighting and an “us vs. them” mentality. But what about the individuals who are caught up in these conflicts? How are they able to make enemies out of those who were once their neighbors? A recent study carried out by neuroscientists aims to understand how humans, who are highly evolved social creatures with an instinct for empathy, are capable of inflicting excruciating pain on other fellow humans. The pioneering study deals with Arab-Jewish relations and how the atmosphere of conflict impacts the empathetic brain response of the individuals in those groups.
The study was conducted by Dr. Yony Levy, a senior neuroscience research fellow and lecturer at the school of psychology at the IDC. He works with various experts to develop conflict-changing interventions, which lean on reverse-psychology, affiliation, mental training and virtual-reality. He then assesses the impact of these interventions on the brain (MEG, fMRI, EEG), hormones and behavior. He has recently received a NARSAD grant, which is one of the highest distinctions in the field of mental health, for his research on the way the brain functions during intergroup conflict.
For the current project Yony Levy worked with Ruth Feldman, a former researcher at the Gonda Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University and who is now heading the new neuroscience center at the IDC which will inaugurate next month. Together they sought to find out “whether neuroscience can offer new insights into the mechanisms that enable humans to tolerate the pain imposed on others. Because the success and thriving of our species depends on the capacity to quickly form social groups and instantly distinguish friend from foe, we ask whether our brain already processes the pain of our ingroup and that of the outgroup differently at the automatic level or whether higher-order evaluative processes are superimposed upon a uniform brain response to differentiate “us” from “them.” That is, we ask whether the “in-group bias” stems from bottom-up or top-down mechanisms and whether this bias can be predicted by endogenous oxytocin (OT) levels, which are known to play a causal role in regulating intergroup relations,” states their article titled, Adolescents Growing Up Amidst Intractable Conflict Attenuate Brain Response to Pain of Outgroup. The article was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
The increasingly predominant involvement of adolescents in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict provides a viable context to study the effects of conflict on brain activity. This age-group is especially relevant as adolescents are known to be very sensitive to empathy-evoking situations as well as more readily responsive to propaganda. Although expressing compassion is indeed a higher ability inherent to humans, there are greater evolutionary forces at play which make this necessary. Empathy is tied to our primitive ability to identify threats in our environment and aid in the survival of our species. On the one hand humans need to be sensitive to possible danger, but on the other hand we are highly evolved social creature with a distinct sense for compassion and helping others. The researchers examined the participants’ hostility and empathy using brain scans to map neural activity during exposure to graphic images showing painful situations among Jews and Arabs. The summary of the findings suggests that “Jewish-Israeli and Arab- Palestinian youth exhibited the same bottom-up activation to in-group member and the same top-down attenuation to out-group member may suggest that we have detected a universal mechanism whose correlates may differ across cultures, but its core components remain constant.”
A Haaretz interview with Yovi Levy about the study can be found here: