How the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Affects the Brains of Arabs and Jews

Show a teenager a photo of someone suffering, and they'll immediately feel their pain. But what happens when an Israeli Jew learns it's an Arab suffering, and vice versa? A new study sought to find out.

A Palestinian woman runs carrying a girl following what police said was an Israeli air strike on a house in Gaza city July 9, 2014.
Majdi Fathi, Reuters

“Five-hundred milliseconds of grace.” In this single pithy phrase, Prof. Ruth Feldman sums up the results of a recently conducted study in her laboratory.

That tiny moment of compassion – no more than half a second – is the duration of our automatic brain response to the pain and suffering of "the other," no matter who or what they are, and where they come from.

This moment will pass in the blink of an eye, before our empathy becomes discriminative and selective.

“A more sophisticated system kicks in and rapidly determines who is a friend and who is a foe,” says Feldman, a researcher at the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, and the Child Study Center at Yale University.

“The brain activity that is linked with empathy changes,” she continues. “It becomes charged with associations and thoughts, divided between those who belong to ‘my’ camp and those who do not, those who could constitute a threat and those who are in distress and need my help.”

This is the first-ever neurological study to deal with Arab-Jewish relations, examining the conflict’s effect on the empathy mechanisms in the minds of both sides.

The study was conducted by Dr. Jonathan Levy, a postdoctoral researcher in Feldman’s laboratory, and was published last month in the PNAS journal (“Adolescents Growing up Amidst Intractable Conflict Attenuate Brain Response to Pain of Outgroup”). This is, apparently, the most direct and clear-cut scientific evidence of the effect of the Middle-Eastern reality on the individual – the biological effect on his thinking and consciousness and, consequently, on the collective to which he belongs.

“Conflict between groups is one of the biggest problems in the world, and it is characterized by the fighting that increasingly involves more and more young people on both sides,” says Levy, explaining the concept behind the study. “We wanted to see how growing up and maturing in the atmosphere of conflict in our region affects the empathy of adolescent Arabs and Jews in Israel toward each other, and whether it’s possible to identify the impact on the level of brain activity.”

"The Brain with David Eagleman" What is Empathy? PBS

Detecting threats

Our ability to feel, understand, identify with and show compassion for the other leads us to mistakenly see ourselves as superior beings, more moral and benevolent in comparison to all the other animals on the planet. But that description – however much it makes us feel good about ourselves – is an affront to reality and several basic biological facts.

Our empathy mechanisms are a product of evolution, designed to meet the needs of survival, continuity and proliferation of the species. It’s a fundamental primitive survival mechanism that is found, at some level or another, among other animals in the wild.

The context and exterior manifestation keep changing, but inherent in the human ability to empathize is the awareness that a person needs skills and socialization in order to increase his chances of survival. The system of moral values – which sanctifies solidarity, compassion, assistance and even sacrifice for the other – is a practical human social framework. But at its biological base, the brain’s faculty for empathy is inseparable from the mechanism of detecting threats.

The empathy system in the brain has been studied over the years, and it itself represents a kind of perpetual conflict between two forces that developed within it during the course of evolution.

First and foremost is the ancient, built-in survival mechanism, located in the limbic system in the brain, which identifies imminent threats around us. When there is a sense of real danger, the mechanism “takes over,” forcing the body’s systems into the required action.

The same system has an additional survival task: recognizing and identifying with the other at the physiological-neural level. This attribute is known as “mirroring,” and allows us to feel a physical identification when exposed to the pain of the other. The system is found in other mammals, including rodents and monkeys.

But our sense of empathy is not reliant upon the primitive system of threat identification alone. The latter stages of evolution saw a growth in the size of the human brain, and the consequent development of more advanced systems – primarily associated with the frontal lobe (prefrontal cortex). These are responsible for an intricate group of sophisticated cognitive and behavioral functions, including distinguishing between friend and foe. This enables us to deal with more complex decision making in larger social groups.

The system is in turn shaped and influenced by our environment: the world of content, education, atmosphere and messages to which a person is exposed.

Implanted worldview

Five-plus decades of continuous conflict, of enmity and fear between two peoples, is reflected not only in the worldview and intense emotions, but also in the attitude to the pain of the other, and the brain activity that expresses it.

In this respect, claims that the recent wave of fires across Israel were politically motivated arson can be seen as a natural part of the overall narrative, and of an inherent individual sense of threat.

This map of threats exists on both sides of the conflict, as Feldman and Levy reveal in their study (which was funded by the Fetzer Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing peace through dialogue in conflict zones).

The study involved 80 Arabs and Jews in Israel, aged 16-18, male and female. “We purposely chose this age group,” says Feldman. “This is an age at which they can show empathy, but are also very exposed to propaganda. It’s obvious why, throughout history, young people of this age were sent to war.”

The young participants were all Israelis, from diverse backgrounds and from different parts of the country. Some came from Jewish West Bank settlements, others from various Arab communities (some of whom spoke no Hebrew). There were also others who had a closer relationship with their opposite number, in some cases having grown up in mixed communities.

The researchers sought to examine the level of hostility and empathy of the participants – from brain activity when the subject was exposed to the pain of the other, to their cognitive and behavioral level by analysis of conversations and observations, and finally the weighting and cross-referencing of data.

In the first stage, each participant had a brain scan while being shown a series of photographs of physical pain being inflicted on Jews and Arabs: a stabbing or a hammer blow, for example, along with a caption with the victim’s name and place: “This is Shahar [Jewish] from Tel Aviv” or “This is Shahad [Arab] from Taibeh.”

For the brain scans, Levy employed Bar-Ilan University’s MEG (magnetoencephalography) device, the only one of its kind in Israel. This advanced device contains hundreds of super-sensors that measure the magnetic fields created by brain activity. “Using MEG allowed us to evaluate not only the location and intensity of the brain activity, but also the duration of the activity down to milliseconds,” Levy says.

The researchers focused on an area of the brain known as S1, which belongs to the sensory system and is located in the cerebral cortex, near the top of the head. “This is a very automatic sensory area, which is recognized as highly involved in the mirroring process [neural identification]. Earlier studies found that exposure to someone else’s pain leads to automatic activity in this area,” adds Levy.

The scans revealed significant differences in brain activity when reacting to pain related to the “other,” as opposed to pain attributed to a member of their own people – and this was true of Jewish and Arab participants alike.

Furthermore, the researchers were able to identify two interesting stages in the brain response, and actually record the transfer of the “reins of control” from the basic empathy system to the more advanced, selective empathy system.

In the first stage, which lasted a few hundred milliseconds, a short automatic burst of brain activity was recorded among the participants, before switching back to zero. This was immediately followed by another stage, in which the researchers identified heightened activity of the empathy mechanism in the brain – but only when the subjects were exposed to the distress of someone identified as one of their own.

Prof. Ruth Feldman and Dr. Jonathan Levy at the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan.
Moti Milrod

“A woman once told me, ‘Every time I hear on the news that a baby or a child was killed in an accident, I hold my breath. But when the announcer adds that it happened in [the Bedouin town of] Rahat or some other Arab town or village, I let out an involuntary sigh of relief,’” recalls Feldman. “This dynamic, experienced on both sides, is reflected also in brain activity.”

After the initial automatic response, our empathetic process cuts off the moment someone is revealed as being the other. The brain rapidly falls in line with its implanted worldview, in which the other appears as a threat and therefore does not trigger an empathetic attitude.

But the researchers were not content only with brain scan results. “We wanted to test whether the differences in brain activity could actually predict attitudes and emotions concerning the conflict and the other side,” Levy says. So the researchers arranged one-on-one meetings, lasting 15 minutes, between youths from either side. The meetings were videotaped and then analyzed using a system that has been developed to decode social interaction.

The software, which was developed by Feldman and is used today in many places around the world, analyzes body language and other external behavior patterns.

Hierarchy of empathy

“In general, the level of hostility in the meetings was not high,” reports Levy. “They were simple, everyday conversations among teenagers, and we found no difference between Jews and Arabs. And yet when we thoroughly examined the levels of hostility, we found that a lower level of hostility was consistent with a high level of brain activity with respect to the pain of someone from the other side – in other words, a demonstration of empathy – and vice versa: a high level of hostility translated into a low level of brain activity with regard to the other.”

In addition, in a different part of the study, each teenager had an in-depth interview with an interviewer from his/her own community. “We wanted to understand their perspective, and measure their willingness for compromise and sacrifice when it came to the conflict,” says Levy. At the end of the interview, each participant was assigned a grade that reflected his or her preparedness to compromise.

“In general, the level of readiness to compromise was low on both sides. But what was interesting was that here too, the brain activity linked to empathy was higher among those who exhibited a greater willingness to compromise,” adds Levy.

An Israeli woman is evacuated after being injured in rocket attack in Ashdod, October 29, 2011.
Tsafrir Abayov, AP

Eventually, when all the findings were cross-referenced, the researchers not only discovered the existence of a deviation in empathetic response, but also the extent of the deviation. “We saw that when the level of hostility and unwillingness to compromise was high, the deviation in brain activity was greater and more decisive,” says Feldman.

The good news emerging from the study, according to Feldman, is that the situation is not set in stone or an irreversible process. Our basic empathy mechanisms are still functioning, but outside influences, prejudices and biases create a hierarchy of empathy.

Since the mechanism is shown to be subject to the influence of external messages, the researchers believe that dialogue and rapprochement can still change the situation.

Feldman and Levy are continuing to research the subject. (The other researchers on the study are Prof. Abraham Goldstein, Moran Influs, Dr. Shafiq Masalha and Dr. Orna Zagoory-Sharon.) Their follow-up study, using the same participants, includes documentation, monitoring and analysis of eight dialogue sessions between teenagers from both sides.

“Ever since the beginning of philosophy and human thought, people have tried to decipher the source of hatred between individuals and groups,” says Feldman. “Each period adds its own meaning – from the Vedas in India, through the biblical sources in Judaism, to Marx and Freud.

“I think that in the past two decades, brain research has become a relevant player in the philosophical inquiry into human nature,” she adds. “The question of empathy and hatred is bound to a deeper primordial question: Is mankind fundamentally good or bad? Our research suggests that man is good – at least in the first half-second.”