Ideology drives us apart. Neuroscience can bring us back together.
A guide to making difficult conversations possible—and peaceful—in an increasingly polarized nation.
SARAH RUGER: People aren't naturally equipped to deal productively with difference. In fact, neuroscientifically, psychologically, socially, we're very wired into fear and to retreat from the 'Other' or the different and it takes an intervention of some sort to promote openness mentally.
If you throw highly different, highly diverse, highly divided people together without a framework or without some sort of bonding experience first it can have the opposite of the intended effect and actually cause more of a clash, more of a feeling of discomfort and ultimately more otherization between those divided peoples. So some of the things that can break down those barriers when you bring them together are things like awe. So there's a fantastic neuroscientist out there by the name of Dr. Beau Lotto, who I believe you all have spoken with before, he's done some interesting work on how things like awe or how things like play can cause people to let go of their fear, let go of their anxiety so that they enter a mental state where they're capable of being curious and entertaining a new experience. Or maybe it's having some sort of shared trial or tribulation that bonds you before you actually deal with the difficult issues.
There is a really fantastic commercial from about a year ago that I think Heineken put on, where it showed two very different people, what the audience knew to be very different people, building a bar together and just talking with each other and struggling to build this bar. And then once the bar is constructed they realize that they held wildly differing beliefs, whether they were differing political beliefs or maybe some prejudices towards each other that they weren't even aware of, and the commercial revealed this to them and then asked if they wanted to sit down and have a drink together now that they knew about this divide. And since they just spent that previous hour toiling over the building of the bar and getting to know the other person as a human being before they got to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs they all sat down and shared a drink together and bonded.
It's important to take the time to have an icebreaker moment before engaging in that conversation, before jumping right into the hot topics that are going to make an individual inclined to jump out of their seat and stop listening and start fighting. So begin with a dinner, began with a meal, begin with literal breaking bread and asking questions of each other in a personal context that help you get to know the other individual as a human being. Some of the other icebreakers that neuroscience and psychology are showing are productive and facilitating active listening and an open mind are things like humor. So take in some humorous content or some awe-inspiring artistic content or go do something active like go for a hike, go for a walk. Studies show that engaging in nature or going through some sort of tribulation, even if it's something as minimally challenging as physical exercise, actually helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. And then begin to ask questions around the difficult topics.
We're looking at huge, complex, intractable problems in our country today. We're talking about a broken criminal justice system, we're talking about a broken immigration system, we're talking about healthcare, we're talking about free expression in a digital age. These are not things that any one person has the answer to and anybody who says they have the absolute right answer is probably trying to sell you something or has a self-interest that you might want to be a little bit skeptical of. We're going to solve these problems by coming together across divides and having conversations with anyone to do good and no one to do harm and to look forward and discuss possible solutions. I become deeply concerned when those conversations are not possible.
- How can we reach out to people on the other side of the divide? Get to know the other person as a human being before you get to know them as a set of tribal political beliefs, says Sarah Ruger. Don't launch straight into the difficult topics—connect on a more basic level first.
- To bond, use icebreakers backed by neuroscience and psychology: Share a meal, watch some comedy, see awe-inspiring art, go on a tough hike together—sharing tribulation helps break down some of the mental barriers we have between us. Then, get down to talking, putting your humanity before your ideology.
- The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations
The pandemic reminds us that our higher education system, with all its flaws, remains a key part of our strategic reserve.
- America's higher education system is under great scrutiny as it adapts to a remote-learning world. These criticisms will only make higher ed more innovative.
- While there are flaws in the system and great challenges ahead, higher education has adapted quickly to allow students to continue learning. John Katzman, CEO of online learning organization Noodle Partners, believes this is cause for optimism not negativity.
- Universities are pillars of scientific research on the COVID-19 frontlines, they bring facts in times of uncertainty and fake news, and, in a bad economy, education is a personal floatation device.
Researchers present what they’ve learned now that they can read the tiny text inside the Antikythera mechanism.
Though it it seemed to be just a corroded lump of some sort when it was found in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece near Antikythera in 1900, in 1902 archaeologist Valerios Stais, looking at the gear embedded in it, guessed that what we now call the “Antikythera mechanism" was some kind of astronomy-based clock. He was in the minority—most agreed that something so sophisticated must have entered the wreck long after its other 2,000-year-old artifacts. Nothing like it was believed to have existed until 1,500 years later.
The institutional barriers that have often held creative teaching back are being knocked down by the coronavirus era.
- Long-held structures in the education system, like classroom confines and schedules, have held back innovation for a long time, says education leader Richard Culatta.
- In the coronavirus era, we have been able to shake some of those rigid structures loose, making way for creativity and, ultimately, a more open mindset.
- When creativity and technology combine, learning can become so much more than delivering content to a student. Culatta gives two stunning examples: one of a biotech class, and another involving a student discovering a star.
We'd like to think that judging people's worth based on the shape of their head is a practice that's behind us.
'Phrenology' has an old-fashioned ring to it. It sounds like it belongs in a history book, filed somewhere between bloodletting and velocipedes.
Maybe you've been wondering if you're seeing one persistent squirrel or a rotating cast of characters.