Bringing Oxytocin into the Room: Notes on the Neurophysiology of Conflict

By Kenneth Cloke

We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
Anais Nin

While people in conflict commonly refer to facts, behaviors, feelings, personalities, or events, for the most part we ignore the deeper reality that these are processed and regulated by the nervous system, and are therefore initiated, resolved, transformed, and transcended largely within our brains.

All conflicts are perceived by the senses, manifested through body language and kinesthetic sensations, embodied and given meaning by thoughts and ideas, steeped in intense emotions, made conscious through awareness, and may then be resolved by conversations and experiences, and develop into character, nurture a capacity for openness and trust, and contribute to learning and an ability to change.

To explain the etiology of conflict therefore requires us to gain a deeper understanding of how the brain responds to conflict. This should clearly include the ways distrusting personalities are formed, even among primates; the sources of aggressive character traits and the “fight or flight” reflex; the wellsprings of spiritual malaise and hostile gut reactions; and the neurological foundations of forgiveness, open-heartedness, empathy, insight, intuition, learning, wisdom, and willingness to change.

While conflict and resolution have yet to be reduced to a simple set of deterministic biochemical events taking place exclusively within the brain, research clearly demonstrates that basic neurological processes provide all of us with alternative sets of instructions that lead either toward impasse or resolution, stasis or transformation, isolation or collaboration. For these reasons, it will serve us well as mediators to understand more about the neurophysiology of conflict.

We have yet to examine communication and conflict resolution very deeply from the perspective of neurophysiology, though we know that the presence of an empathetic listener, particularly one who is skilled in mediation, can by itself create a significant shift in conflict dynamics, and alter, at a subtle level of awareness, the attitudes of parties in conflict. But why is this so, and what does it imply for conflict resolution?

For millennia, our greatest sages – particularly those from the East, including Lao Tse, Confucius, and Buddha – have sought to convince us that the universe consists of opposites that, at the deepest level, merge into a single, unified whole. Yet it has taken until the 20th century and the discovery of quantum mechanics – initially by Planck and Einstein, then by Bohr and Heisenberg – to establish scientifically that observers and the things they observe are part of a single interconnected system, and reveal how and why the act of observation, at a subtle level, directly influences the object or process being observed.

For all our immense progress in recent years in understanding conflict and discovering techniques that encourage resolution, until recently we have paid little attention to the physiology and internal operations of the brain, and the ways it perceives and responds to the complex, ever-changing experience of conflict.

I am not a trained neurophysiologist, but an avid lay reader, and have learned an immense amount of useful information regarding conflict resolution from reading scientific studies of the brain and how it functions. What follows is a brief synopsis of some of the more interesting and important ideas and news items I have read describing recent research and experiments in neurophysiology as they pertain to conflict and the mediation process.

What is the Brain?
Most conflicts are triggered by external experiences and information regarding them is conveyed to us by sensory inputs that have been gathered from our environment. Our conflicts therefore seem to us to take place externally, yet everything we understand about the meaning of what happened, and all of our responses to the actions of others are initiated and coordinated internally by our brains.

What, then, is the brain, how is it structured, and how does it typically respond to conflict?

First, the brain has been analogized to a massively powerful parallel processing computer, more powerful than anything we have been able to design or create. One hundred billion nerve cells make up the brain, each of which may create up to ten thousand synaptic connections, and together can form more than a million neuronal connections every second.

An average desktop computer is capable of sending 25 billion instructions per second, while a human brain can send 100 over trillion. An adult human brain, by some accounts, can make as many as 500 trillion synaptic connections per second. This, by itself, can explain what we commonly refer to as intuition, which is merely