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Conflict Patterns Become HARD-WIRED. Mediation Can Help Parties to RE-WIRE.

There is a funny bit of nonfiction that has been making its rounds through internet emails. I think it illustrates a scientific basis why mediation may make sense for people who are unwinding their marriages, domestic partnerships, and other intimate relationships. It goes like this:

mediation and the brain

Do you know why railroad tracks in this country are exactly 4 feet, 8.5 inches apart? After all, this distance seems to be arbitrary number.

It is because that is the way railroad tracks were built in England, and English transplants helped design them in the United States.

But why were they fixed at this distance in England?

Because the tramways that preceded rail lines in England and Europe were designed by the same people who built the trams. They used the same tools and jigs that had previously been used for building horse drawn wagons, which had the same wheel spacing as the trams came to have. 

But why this wheel spacing? Because the roads that were many hundreds of years old were fixed at that spacing, and to use any other size would have destroyed the precious wagon wheels. The roads had become deeply rutted from centuries of use.

conflict is hard-wiredAnd why were the ruts grooved at this distance? Because the roads were first built by the Romans for their legions, and in particular their war chariots. These chariots that formed the initial ruts, which everyone thereafter had to match in order to not destroy their valuable wooden wheels, were spaced at 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to allow the rear ends of two horses to which the chariots were harnessed. Yes, our railroad lines today are spaced exactly to accommodate two horse's asses.

This is a wonderful metaphor. We actually wear tracks into the neural architecture of our brains by how we respond to stimuli, and after awhile it may seem impossible to break free of the ruts. Neuroscience and brain scan imaging is developing evidence that has vast implications for the consequences of how we manage conflict, particularly in relationships that are ending. 

For instance, we now know that after birth the greatest developmental spurts for the brain occur when children or 3-5 and again between 10-13 years of age. Neurons - cells and the synapses that connect them - are being grown in younger adults in exponential leaps. What impacts might a contentious divorce have upon these developing organs? 

By the mid-twenties our brains contain more than four quadrillion neurons and synapses. They fire together in amazingly complex arrays. This ability of our brains to wire has made us successful since we could not have survived as a species if we could not cope with threats or meet complex biological and social needs. But a price we pay is that this hardwiring can be resistant to change, and even maladaptive. A "conditioning" develops that tends to energize and determine our thinking, emotions, attitude and behavior - particularly when we are not paying direct attention to it.  

Neurons that fire together, wire together. Just as with war chariot wheels racing across the same terrain again and again, as these combinations continue to fire in repetitive ways we follow the same ground. This looks like driving a car through previously unbroken fields of wheat.  If the vehicle is driven again and again over the same path, a ditch wears in. Most of us have gotten our wheels caught in a ditch - it becomes difficult to steer our way out. 

Our response patterns to conflict can
cause 'furrows' to form in our brains that cause us to interact in ways that can seem impossible to escape. Our reactions to conflict, or our willingness to become locked within it, is in a very real sense a habit of the brain that has developed over time. Many of us have felt quite helpless in the face of some of our reactions, during and after the fact.

Fortunately, the cells and neurons that make up our brains are not static. Even as we continue to age our brains remain highly adaptable. There is growing evidence that changing the way we habitually respond to stress or conflict can cause neurons to begin to rewire differently. This is termed "neuroplasticity". It allows a possibility for different experiences and set of outcomes than those we supposed to be our fate or the only choice. We can engage in behaviors that themselves help to develop neural pathways that offer better and happier alternatives to other more familiar ones - neurobiologists liken this to the "pruning" we all know as amateur gardeners. 

I am not suggesting we take our brains to Gold's Mind Gym and sculpt them like we might our muscles,... yet. Those places don't exist today, but they will within a generation or two. I am making the point that there is a biological basis for understanding how we become conditioned in any number of ways, including how we become rooted in conflicted styles of interacting under the stress of divorce or separation. 

Given the capacity of our brains to rewire, and our amazing abilities to adapt once we develop an awareness of the outlines of any challenge, like overcoming patterned behaviors, I believe that mediation and mediated processes offer family law disputants an environment for safely exploring creative new solutions to old problems. When we become willing to consider how our own reactivity tends to keep us recycling, and that sometimes our response to anxiety producing circumstances are almost unconscious, we are suddenly freed to look deeply at how we might honor and protect our own interests while honoring the views of our former partners. This is a beginning for finding the common ground that always exists, but so often seems hidden, for parties who are uncoupling. It has its practical expression in dividing property, fixing support, supporting independence, and in nurturing and sharing children.

As a family law litigator for 30 years, my experience has been that when people are assisted in developing options that are more visionary and mutual than what Courts impose, the process costs them less, they are more satisfied, they reach agreements that are lasting, and that they can positively influence those around them and especially those who depend upon them for emotional and financial support. And, they feel better and begin to view their lives more positively. 

Which is a good way to support a useful rewiring of our brains. 

T.W. Arnold


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