The On Being Project

How to Train Your Brain to See Beyond Us Versus Them

Have you ever noticed a tendency to regard different people, places, or things as “other,” as categorically different from yourself, irredeemably separate? This kind of bias is an evolutionary trait — something that’s part of our survival wiring. After all, bias — snap judgments — are what supported early humans in assessing the relative safety or danger of strangers; bias is the mechanism that helps us decide who or what is a threat. It’s a natural, species-wide habit. We simply need to work with it, rather than against it.

Both research and common sense corroborate that fear of losing a sense of our own identity can drive bias into prejudice and antipathy. This dynamic is at work in everything from geopolitical conflict to minor spats with friends, partners, and loved ones.

A student of mine recently told me about going to her partner’s family’s house for Christmas, and how she found celebrating a different holiday and spending time with his family to be mildly traumatic, simply because of difference. “His family was so different from my family,” she told me. “I felt so judgmental of them, but also insecure.” The “us versus them” dynamic at work is going on all around us, often within us, and overcoming it is a matter of first noticing it arise, and interrogating whether separation from the “other” actually makes us feel safer.

A few weeks ago, my friend, fellow meditator and research psychiatrist Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., wrote me an email about his growing awareness of the relationship between his personal meditation practice and his lab’s research. We had been corresponding about the immigration ban, and the related “us versus them” dynamic, and his response was thoughtful:

“I feel like there’s an even stronger need to transform this communal energy from hate to love, from separation to connection. This morning it arose that this may be where my personal practice comes together with my lab’s research: exploring the experience of contraction vs. expansion and how that manifests in the world in so many ways.”

When I heard Judson refer to “contraction vs. expansion,” I thought instantly that he must be using a more evocative metaphor to describe “us versus them”: “contraction” struck me as the feeling that we create for ourselves when we are threatened or afraid. We contract, we seek separateness, the creation of rigid boundaries. “Expansion,” by contrast, must mean something like lovingkindness — a vast feeling of love, joy, and generosity for all beings. “I like that metaphor,” I told him in response.

“It’s literal,” he told me. Surprised, I suggested we have a longer conversation about it.

Judson began by telling me about an aspect of research he began pursuing around 2008: His lab sought to characterize the brains of novice meditators in comparison to experienced meditators using fMRI scanners. “We found that there were literally only four brain regions that were different amongst novices and experienced meditators,” Judson explained. “That blew us away.”

Specifically, Judson and his co-researchers found that experienced meditators had decreased activity in two of the four brain regions as compared with novice meditators; both regions concern what’s known as a “self referential brain network” called the default mode network. One of these regions is called the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), which was most active among novice meditators. “When they were feeling guilty, they activated it. When they were craving a bunch of different substances, they activated it. When they were ruminating, they activated it, when they were anxious, they activated it.”

What Judson and his team found was that the PCC — the hub of self-referential habits — correlated with contraction: “The experience of anxiety, of guilt, of craving, of rumination, all of these share literally an experiential component of contraction. We contract when we’re afraid. We contract when we’re feeling guilty.”

By contrast, I learned that it is when we are able to dissolve our sense of clinging to a rigid “self” and “other” that activity decreases in the PCC. “Not only did meditation itself decrease this brain region and brain region’s activity, but it was a specific quality of experience — one of expansion.” According to Judson’s studies, the experienced meditators were better trained in letting go of an isolating sense of self because of their ability to maintain a more open fist when self-referential thoughts arise. As I often say to my students, meditation is about letting go an incalculable number of times. As we practice doing this, we simply get better at it.

I was curious to learn more about how this applied to our contemporary political climate. When we read something in the news that scares or upsets us, are we doomed to enter into a state of contraction?

Possibly, but the real wisdom is in how we respond to it, which is the case in both daily life and meditation. “If we read the news and read something that pisses us off, it is that reaction of contraction that feels bad,” Judson explained. “So we may have this urge to make ourselves feel better by firing off a Tweet, writing an email, eating a cupcake.”

“This perpetuates the entire process,” Judson explained. “If we’re not aware of our habitual responses, then we not only make things worse for ourselves, but also for society… These negative reinforcements are what’s happening right now. One side says, ‘I’ll get you,’ and the other responds, ‘Oh no, I’ll get you first.’”

Snap-judgments or instinctual reactions can feel good — at least momentarily. Trying to one-up the “other” may activate our brain’s reward circuits in an ephemeral instant, but if we become more aware of how we are responding, habits of contraction can become less reinforcing. It’s when we take the time to stop ourselves that we can actually see the nature of our reaction. We may then be able to stop and say, “Oh, that doesn’t feel so good.”

And not only does it feel crummy to be building and maintaining so many walls; with greater clarity, we come to see that we are not so fundamentally different from those whom we perceive as “other.” We may be livid upon reading the news and want to vilify the people we are reading about. But regarding others, ranging from our personal acquaintances to government officials, as our enemies, totally disconnected from ourselves, doesn’t help. As I learned from Judson, it activates the part of our brain associated with anxiety, guilt, fear, and rumination.

None of this is meant to imply that we dissolve all sense of discernment into a gray blob, that we lose the imperative to fight to make things different in the world, to make them better as we see it. We do fight, and maybe even harder than we could before, but sustained by a vision of life that is not based on such contraction and estrangement. We can work towards change empowered by a sense of expansiveness, interconnection, and compassion.

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