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The Noisy Coffin Does Not Tell All

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution.

We are not alone and yet much of the neuroscience research looks at just one brain at a time. As Jonah Lehrer says in a recent interview (Edge):

“Neuroscience has contributed so much in just a few decades to how we think about human nature and how we know ourselves,” he says. “But how can we take that same rigor, which has made this research so valuable and, at the same time, make it a more realistic representation of what it’s actually like to be a human. After all, we’re a brain embedded in this larger set of structures.”

“You can call it culture, call it society, call it your family, call it your friend, call it whatever it is. … It’s the reason Twitter exists. We have got all these systems now that really make us fully aware of just how important social interactions are to what it is to be human. The question is, how can we study that? Because that, in essence, is a huge part of what’s actually driving these enzymatic pathways in your brain. What’s triggering these synaptic transmissions and these squirts of neurotransmitter back and forth is thoughts of other people, what other people say to us, interacting with the world at large.”

It can be confining and confusing to look at brains individually; this is why the last letter of my CARVE model of conflict resolution stands for “Ensemble.” Lehrer further says:

Just think, for instance, about what’s now the hottest method in cognitive neuroscience: The fMRI machine, the brain scan. Think about the fundamental limitation of this machine, which is that it’s one person by himself in what’s essentially a noisy coffin. So you give him the stimulus. He’s going through the experimental task, whatever it is. Choosing whether or not to buy something, doing a visual memory task. Whatever the protocol is, you’re in essence looking at a brain in a vacuum. You’re looking at a brain by itself, and we don’t think enough about how profoundly abstract that is, and what an abstraction that is on the reality we actually inhabit, the reality of being a human and what human nature is all about.

“Noisy coffin.” I think that description will stick with me, partly because it reminds me of how I was seeing the fMRI when Sting and his brain were being studied, and partly because of Lehrer’s memorable choice of words.

When we have conflict, we have a conflict system. How much do we learn by studying one brain component of that system? I believe in the future we will be finding the answer to that question from neuroscience, as well as other sources. Thanks to Lehrer for posing some of these next-step questions.


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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