I’m being asked quite often by dispute resolution professionals who have not had the chance to learn specifically about “applied neurobiology” why the hell they should learn about the brain. I have thought about the best answer and I finally came to the title above, which may sound esoteric at first, but if you notice the similarity with the famous quote from the Clinton campaign (“It’s the economy, stupid”), you’ll hopefully start to understand where I’m heading. If not, let me help you.
First of all, there is learning about the brain and learning about the brain. The kind of learning that I’m advocating creates connections between your personal experience, your professional practice, neurobiology and other social sciences: cognitive science, behavioral psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc. Using an extreme image, trying to learn about human psychology and then applying it to real-life situations such as disputes without knowing about neurobiology is to me a little bit like trying to do software programming without knowing a single bit about the hardware, about its limitations and its potential – and God (or should I say Darwin?) knows how much we are both constrained and empowered by our beautiful hardware. As Joshua Greene, from Harvard’s Moral Cognition lab, has said:
“We love our respective moral senses. They are as much a part of us as anything. But if we are to live together in the world we have created for ourselves, so unlike the one in which our ancestors evolved, we must know when to trust our moral senses and when to ignore them.”
Said differently, our brain is a complex, living and outdated evolved system and, as dispute resolution professionals, it’s our duty to know the consequences of this humbling truth.
Second of all, I don’t think that psychologists have been very good at convincing “left-brainers” such as corporate lawyers turned commercial mediators that psychology was useful to their practice. If the teaching of applied neurobiology achieves that objective, psychologists may be angry or jealous, but while they are busy with that, I prefer to humbly help my “left-brain” colleagues develop themselves and their practice.
And that leads me to my third point. Many dispute resolution professionals are secretly eager to be “better human beings” without daring to confess it and without being able to define what it means to them. I believe that learning and thinking about the brain can be for them the start of a different and more pleasing journey, one which is not only a succession of successful settlements.
What we learn about ourselves and the human nature through the study of applied neurobiology is diverse and fun: how to maintain or rewire your brain, how to optimize learning and teaching, how to focus your attention, how to think with the whole brain, how to better manage your emotions and – maybe the most important part for dispute resolution professionals – what it means to be social animals and how you can optimize interactions during mediation by leveraging neurobiological drivers.
To all my dear colleagues who just finished their mediation training or who have decades of practice behind them, I have in conclusion one simple message: be openly “neuroaware”, you will not regret it!
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