There is obviously a psychological dimension to the Isreali/Palestinian conflict. One aspect of it is the trauma experienced by both sets of people (if speaking of sets of people isn’t already part of the problem – see Chris Dillow’s post on the inherent dangers involved in such broad-brush thinking). The Israeli trauma is rooted in the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. The Palestinian trauma in the Nakba of 1948 when many people either fled or were forced to flee their villages.


Discussion of this subject is a minefield. Here is a very small contribution to it. Jonah Lehrer recently wrote about the brain’s hard-wired capacity for ‘meta-cognition’. This is where we think about thinking (see my post on the evolution of the social brain in terms of thinking about thinking in other people’s minds). This capacity is incredibly useful, allowing us to reflect on our cognitive techniques and refine them.


But there is an unfortunate side-effect to this amazingly useful capacity for meta-cognition. The brain checks on itself to see if a thought process has started, keeping it in mind so we can alter it if it ‘jars’ with other information we are receiving. This is why if we try not to think of something we often do so anyway to our chagrin.


When a thought is particularly powerful or vivid (for example painful) this meta-cognitive process becomes pervasive and takes centre stage. And this is basically what happens in trauma (there may be other factors at work in the experience of trauma, but this meta-cognitive element seems to be central).


One thing that gets discussed a lot with regard to the Isreali/Palestinian conflict is whose trauma is more important, legitimate or painful. That seems like a wrongheaded discussion to me. Denying, cheapening, even simply quantifying the trauma of ‘the other side’ contributes to the dehumanising dynamic that makes this conflict so intractable.


I don’t want to suggest that the actors in this conflict are being driven by their brains and are blameless. But perhaps one of the reasons for the inability of some on ‘both sides’ to see the trauma and suffering of the ‘other side’ is the pervasiveness of their own trauma. In terms of mediating the conflict, remembering this fact might be useful.