Triggering Peace in Strife-Torn Settings
What happens inside the body in situations of stress and conflict? What changes biologically to allow empathy and trust into those same settings? Those are some of the questions being investigated by researchers at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, Israel.
The study, set against the tense background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other Middle East strife, seeks to establish and define practices to re-architect biological and social "switchboards" toward more inclusivity and empathy and away from us-versus-them mindsets.
The work is unique in its combination of empathy training intervention and biological testing of brain, hormonal and physiological processes along with social behavior.
“We are certain that the insights gained from this intervention will be valuable for future work on adolescents experiencing high conflict, whether at the personal, familial, community, or national levels,” said project leader Ruth Feldman, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University.
A set of eight meetings of 12 young women, six Jewish and six Arab, have been conducted and data captured. In those, emphasis was placed on creating a safe and open atmosphere for collaboration, discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, approaches to dialogue, and restorative concepts such as empathy, lovingkindness and generosity.
The final, wrap-up session showed the impact of the interaction on attitudes. Girls spoke about how participating in the group is likely to alter their long-term views on the possibility of co-existence in Israel and they separated with hug, tears, and gratitude to the leaders.
"When I returned home I felt good about myself because I did something (so) that Israeli (Jews) could understand me, and maybe they can influence other people in their society," reported one participant.
A similar set of meetings is planned for this fall with groups of young men. In both cases, researchers are capturing and coding the types and frequency of interactions, psychophysiological data and hormonal levels from the sessions. Analysis will include physical measurement of stress reactions such as heart rate changes and skin conductance.
This is a project of the Fetzer Advisory Council on the Natural Sciences.