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Exploring the science behind conflict management

Following their workshop at our annual conference, Cyrenians' Digital Media and Content Manager, Colin Waters, discusses how being more in tune with our neural networks can help avoid conflict and relationship breakdown.

This summer, Cyrenians Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution (SCCR) launched its latest educational digital development. Aimed at young people, the Three Brains brings together music, science, film, and illustrations for a quirky, entertaining look at the mind-body connection, emotional regulation and wellbeing. Characterising the elements of the mind-body connection (the brain, the heart and the gut) as members of a rock band is a fun way of looking at the science of conflict – although the purpose behind The Three Brains is no laughing matter.

In common with our previous projects – Monkey Vs Lizard, #KeepTheHeid and Emotional Homunculus – The Three Brains was conceived as a tool to help reduce the rates of youth homelessness by giving young people the skills to reduce conflict in the family home; relationship breakdown is cited as the most common reason for young people leaving home without somewhere to go onto. According to Scottish Government statistics, there were 8,525 young people registered as homeless in Scotland in 2020/1.

We believe that sharing knowledge about the science can take some of the heat out of conflict by reminding young people and their parents or carers that arguments are actually a normal part of the developmental cycle, and that there are techniques to use to get past the worst of it.

Three Brains

If I was to say to you, your body has three brains, you would of course say, no, it doesn’t – and you’d be right. We’re not claiming that the body has any more actual brains than the one found in your head.

When we talk about the body’s ‘three brains’, we are referring to the ‘neural networks’ in our brain, heart and gut. The heart and gut don’t ‘think’ or have a consciousness like our actual brain does, but like the brain they contain specialised cells called neurons. Typically, thousands of neurons work together in neural networks. They ‘talk’ to each other using electrical signals and chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitter travel between gut, heart and brain via something called the vagus nerve. Like brains, the gut and heart neural networks can process and store information, change and adapt.

Our physical and mental health are connected and affect our emotions – with the reverse being true too.

We’ve known for centuries that when we feel emotional, the feeling registers as something in our bodies; for example, sinking feelings, butterflies in your stomach, and a racing heart. This has led to common metaphors such as a ‘gut feeling’ and ‘heartbroken’.

Three organs in sync

It used to be thought that communication between brain, heart and gut was one-sided, with the heart and gut responding to the brain’s commands.

We now know the relationship between brain, heart and gut is more like an ongoing conversation that gives these three organs the chance to be in synchronisation with each other.

If the mind-body connection is strong, people tend to be able to manage relationships better because they can regulate their moods. ‘Mood regulation’ sounds a bit technical when put like that, but we’re all familiar with the idea whether we know it or not. For example, most of us know we can change or enhance mood using music. The Three Brains goes further by suggesting young people can regulate their mood themselves, helping to avoid conflict and relationship breakdown at home.

Making music together

The music theme has proved to be a rich source of metaphors for the project. We characterised the elements of the mind-body connection as band members: the brain as singer and guitarist, the heart as drummer, and the gut as bassist. Like a band, the three parts of the mind-body connection need to be in sync to get the best out of them. Equally, even if our mind-body connection is in good shape, like musicians, we never stop ‘practicing’ to get the best out of them.

The pages on the SCCR website (click here to access) include an interactive quiz and a look at the science behind The Three Brains. The quiz uses music-related scenarios to get young people thinking how they would react in different circumstances. For example, ‘A band member hasn’t come to practice. When others don’t show your level of commitment, it upsets you. You call them – what should you say?’ The multiple-choice answers suggest a contemplative one (the brain), an emotional response (the heart) and an instinctive answer (the gut). Our hope is that this gets young people thinking about what is the most appropriate response when in situations that have the potential for conflict.

In addition to the website, we’re currently developing workshops based on The Three Brains we plan to roll out in schools, youth organisations and online next year, as well as adding downloadable resources to the website that could be used by teachers and youth workers. All these resources can be found by visiting our website and clicking on ‘Brainy Stuff’ on the dropdown menu. We hope it tickles at least one of your ‘brains’!

Colin Waters is Digital Media and Content Manager with Cyrenians which manages the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution

About the author

Colin Waters is the Digital Media and Content Manager for the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution

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A time to learn, look beyond – and show common cause

30 March 2022

In the midst of despair about the war in Ukraine, our CEO Jude Turbyne reflects on the contribution we can all make to defending children’s rights there and around the world

Two years of wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic. Two years of high levels of anxiety. Two years of working out new ways of living, being and working. And just as it felt as if we might be coming through the other side, there was suddenly war in Ukraine, with up close and personal footage 24 hours a day.

It has forced us to lift our heads up and look out, and we have seen lots of positive solidarity with the Ukrainian people suddenly affected by violence and displacement.

Conflict will tend to have a disproportionate impact on children. Frequently, wars creep into the domestic setting, essential infrastructure that is needed to guarantee even basic levels of health is attacked, and the vulnerability of children to the outcomes of conflict is profound.

Children in conflict are likely to start going hungry, become ill with preventable disease, lose their chance at an education and be at greater risk of sexual violence. The mental trauma of conflict and war in children is significant and can lead to long-term damage if support is not available.

In short, it becomes almost impossible for the rights of children to be fulfilled in a war setting. And the impact is exacerbated depending on different personal characteristics; for instance, gender, age, disability status, ethnicity, religion and where the child lives. Save the Children and the Children and War Foundation have some good insights into the impact of conflict on children.

Click here for more information on Save the Children

Click here for more information on the Children and War Foundation

It is estimated that already more than 1.5 million children have fled the violence in Ukraine. If you keep going another 4,000 miles south and slightly east of Ukraine, you reach Yemen, where, due to conflict and environmental challenges, at least 11 million children are estimated as needing humanitarian assistance. And Yemen is not even number one in the very depressing top ten of humanitarian crises published by the International Rescue Committee; it is third behind Afghanistan and Ethiopia.

Click here to read the International Rescue Committee’s top 10 humanitarian crises

What can we do in these difficult situations? While we might empathise and sympathise, there is a feeling of powerlessness that comes from the scale of the problems and the fact that they are happening far from home. But while we can’t solve global problems by ourselves individually, there are things that we can do.

Taking the Ukraine situation as an example, there are real practical needs in terms of supporting those affected by the crisis. The best way to help is to donate money. While it might feel tempting to collect goods, it is much easier to source these closer to the conflict, based on the actual needs at the time.

One good route of donating is through the Disasters Emergency Committee which brings together 15 leading UK charities to raise funds quickly and efficiently. As you will see if you go to the site, there is currently also an appeal running for Afghanistan.

Click here to find out more about the Disasters Emergency Committee and consider donating

There will be many people in Scotland who are more severely affected by the situation in Ukraine because of their direct links. Having a listening ear and making sure people have somewhere to go to can be helpful. The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland has produced a good blog where you can find sources of help. It also explains how you can show direct solidarity child-to-child, a suggestion from the Children’s Commission in Ukraine.

Click here to read the blog by the Children's Commissioner

As Ukrainian refugees start to arrive in Scotland, there will be ways of offering practical support and resources at a local community level. The website of the Scottish Refugee Council is a good place go to read about what is happening with Ukrainian refugees.

Engagement with Europe is important to us as an organisation, and always has been. We are members of Eurochild, a network of organisations and individuals working with and for children in Europe. They have a wealth of resources on the Ukrainian conflict available on their website.

Click here to find out about Eurochild’s resources on the conflict in Ukraine

All these examples of partnership and advocacy demonstrate why the power of solidarity should never be underestimated.

Here I’ve reflected mostly on the Ukrainian situation. But I am so aware of the many children around the world who are experiencing conflict or environmental disasters which make it so difficult for their rights to be realised.

Our vision is that ‘all children in Scotland have an equal chance to flourish’. How much better would our world be if, globally, all children had that chance?

About the author

Jude Turbyne has worked extensively in the field of international development

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Bringing together 15 UK aid charities...

DEC raises funds quickly and efficiently at times of humanitarian crisis overseas

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Eurochild resources

This network organisation offers a range of resources on the crisis in Ukraine

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A rights-based view on children and war

A blog by the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland details where you can find sources of help

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Leading responses to humanitarian crises

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Helping children get a future they deserve

Save the Children is working to ensure children keep safe, healthy and learning worldwide

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