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Could the Seeds of Peace Lie in our Brains?

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I expected the Global Creative Leadership Summit, whose delegates included five presidents, a prime minister, the Secretary General of NATO, and the president of European Commission, to be informative and enlightening. But I was surprised that the conference, held from Sunday to Tuesday at New York's Metropolitan Club, was so, well, full of surprises: the group was not a monochromatic gang of stodgy old, albeit coup-crafting, white men (after all, Henry Kissinger was there last year), but an array of truly inspiring women and men from around the globe. The Honorable Phoebe Asiyo was a member of Kenya's parliament for 15 years, and now fights for women's rights as chair of The Kenya Women's Political Caucus and Goodwill Ambassador for the UN development fund for Women. As we sat down to lunch, Asiyo took the hand of fellow speaker--and Kenyan--Salim Amin and exclaimed, "You have to do this for Africa. Do it for your father." What Amin is doing is starting Africa 's first ever independent 24-hour news channel. Amin's father is the late Mohamed Amin, a Kenyan photojournalist whose pictures and videos of the famine in Ethiopia raised consciousness around the world and whose life was cut short by a plane hijakcing. During a coffee break, just hours after Asiyo had praised the Amins, Asiyo was karmically praised back. Olara Otunnu who was Uganda's Ambassador and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and is now the president of the LBL Foundation for Children explained to me, " Asiyo "is our inspiration. She is like a mother to us."

Another surprise was that though the discussions were serious, tackling issues from poverty to terrorism, they included comic relief. When, during a panel called "Globalizing the Mind," Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales' microphone ran into interference, panel moderator and International Herald Tribune editor Mike Oreskes figured out the problem. Reaching across Wales, Oreskes grabbed Wales' vibrating cell phone, looked at the screen and announced, "It's your wife." Unlike Giuliani, Wales had the self-restraint to ignore the call. But the cell phone malfunction did leave fellow panelist, Nobel-Laureate Eric Kandel in stitches. In the panel "The Click of a Mouse and the Check in the Box," Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, lauded interactive presidential debates like the Yahoo Huffington Post/ Slate Mashup for engaging ordinary people in politics, but this is merely a first step: "What we really need is something that will call people to task for not answering questions, something like an automated Helen Thomas."

While I imagined I would learn much from the Summit, I never would have predicted that one of the most compelling and powerful political lessons would be delivered not by a statesman or businessman, but by MIT neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher. This third surprise occurred during a panel called "Foreign Policy is a Foreign Concept," which opened with an address by Croatian president, Stjepan Mesić, whose speech on Yugoslavia--its formation, civil war, and dissolution--presented eerie parallels to Iraq. Our very own Arianna Huffington brilliantly explored the power of technology, specifically the net roots, to counter disinformation: disingenuous claims of victory and success in Iraq provoke an immediate online response--including blogging from Baghdad and uploading photographs and videos--that actually reflects reality. Yet, explained Arianna, the Internet is "not the short cut that we might hope for world peace....the seeds of war are deep in nature."

Responding with IM-like speed, Dr. Kanwisher agreed, adding only, "There are also seeds of peace that run deep." As evidence, Kanwisher pointed not to to historical theses or poly sci journals, but to lab reports. Kanwisher explained that empathy, our ability share the emotions and pains of others, is a natural human default mode. Brain imagery demonstrates that when we experience our own pain, certain parts of the brain are activated. When we observe someone else's pain, the area that is activated overlaps with the same area activated by our own pain. Kanwisher cited research conducted by Tania Singer, which illuminates what it is that blocks empathy: when we perceive that someone is acting unfairly, we are less empathetic towards the person. In an experiment, individuals were paired with partners with whom they played games. Some of the partners played fairly, while other partners broke the rules. After playing, the individuals would observe their partners experiencing pain. Brain scans revealed that the person felt more empathy for the partner if the partner had played fair, and less empathy if the partner had cheated.

But what do brain scans have to do with Foreign Policy? According to Kanwisher, these empathy experiments can shed light on the sources of animosity towards the United States. "We have not played fair, we have not been respecting rule of law. So no wonder they don't feel our pain."

Unfortunately, this neuro-science model is all too applicable to the Bush administration, which refuses to play fair, time and time again. From violating habeas corpus, to torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, to sending contractors with no accountability into Iraq, the latest and most astonishing example of which is the Blackwater assassination of 11 Iraqi civilians, the U.S. is making it harder for Iraqis--and the larger world community--to empathize with us. As Arianna explained, far from acting as a peace-keeping presence in Iraq, the U.S. occupation only serves to exacerbate the hatred and instability within the country. Expanding on the political implications of empathy, Summit organizer Louise Blouin MacBain reflected on the importance of empathy not just for, but from, the U.S.: "It seems like empathy is an overarching theme. I don't believe we should not speak to some countries. Dialogue is essential. It's much easier to kill someone you don't know than someone you know."

As the occupation of Iraq appears increasingly intractable and the drum roll for war against Iran grows louder and louder, we would be wise to heed the findings of the empathy experiment. If only Louise MacBain could organize the next G8 summit.