The Neuro-Educational Path to Peace: What the Spirit and Brain can Accomplish for Everyone

By William M. Timpson, PhD (Educational Psychology) and Selden Spencer, MD (Neurology)

Adapted from William Timpson (2002) Teaching and Learning Peace (Madison, WI: Atwood)

In times of war and military reprisal, how does one teach about peace? How do we help young people manage their own anger and aggressiveness when violence is so prevalent in their lives, at school and on the streets, in the news, on television, in the movies and in the lyrics of some of their music? When memories of attacks are raw and calls for retaliation become shrill, how do an educator and a neurologist—or anyone in a leadership role who is committed to the ideals of a sustainable peace—open a meaningful dialogue about alternatives to violence?

For at its core, democracy demands conversation, and compromise. Dictators rule without question, their weaknesses sheltered by brute force, nepotism, terror, and the like. In a search for peace, however, we have many heroes to call on for inspiration and guidance. Some like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, Elise Boulding and Nelson Mandela are well known. Others are less public but come from communities like the Quaker Society of Friends, the Mennonites and the Bahai’s, and share a core religious belief in peace and nonviolence. Some like Dorothy Day dedicated their church work to social justice, hunger, and the poor. And then there is the world of neuroscience and what we can learn about sustainable peacebuilding from them.

Here Selden Spencer offers these introductory thoughts: Defining peace from a social/group perspective is daunting especially through a neurobiological prism. Perhaps focusing on the individual might be easier for we know that individual peace can impact societal behavior. Here we can point to behaviors that are conducive for anyone who wants to be at peace. For example, meditation has been studied and its neurobiological underpinnings are known. It has for centuries been one way for people to find peace.

However, here we will argue that individual peace is at its core a careful balance of reward and shame. We can see this when individuals are in a place of balance and neither in a relentless search and sacrifice for reward nor withdrawn into the despair of failure and shame. If this is balanced, then inner peace might result.

This biphasic formula is not foreign to the nervous system. Even biologic phenomenon like sleep can be reduced to an on/off circuitry. There are endless inputs here, both fast and slow, metabolic and neuronal, but in the end, sleep is driven by the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus (vlPo). Perhaps most influential are the orexin inputs from the lateral hypothalamus.

So too can we hypothesize that the balance of reward and shame is mediated by dopamine as expressed by the ventral tegmental nucleus and that this will determine an individual’s state of inner peace. It is understood that this sense of peace will be different for each person. A warrior given and trained in violence will have different reward/shame balance and it will be different from a sequestered monk.

It is hoped that the recognition of this universal circuitry may help us better understand the nature of peace on an individual level. Obviously, the degree to which the individual is coordinated with the group will dictate the influence of that individual on the group as well as the influence of the group on the individual. Perceptions of individual or group survival will then help define peace.

Perceptions of injustice can disrupt inner peace and the underlying balance of reward and shame. Thus, questions of justice become disruptive to reward and shame in some fashion. The slaughter of beavers or Paiutes will not stop till shame blunts perceived rewards. Inner peace dissolves in this struggle. It starts with the individual and proceeds to the group through the complex dynamics noted earlier.


Other books on peacebuilding and reconciliation available as pdf (“e-book) files:

Timpson, W., E. Brantmeier, N. Kees, T. Cavanagh, C. McGlynn and E. Ndura-Ouédraogo (2009) 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Peace and Reconciliation. Madison, WI: Atwood.

Timpson, W. and D. K. Holman, Eds. (2014) Controversial Case Studies for Teaching on Sustainability, Conflict, and Diversity. Madison, WI: Atwood.

Timpson, W., E. Brantmeier, N. Kees, T. Cavanagh, C. McGlynn and E. Ndura-Ouédraogo (2009) 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Peace and Reconciliation. Madison, WI: Atwood.

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