How to Train Your Brain to See Beyond Us Versus Them

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 5:00 am

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.

Share Post


is a monthly columnist for On Being. She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace. Her most recent work is Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection.

Share Your Reflection


  • FelJones

    Ah, contraction. Not to mention expansion. The thing is, as under-valued and misunderstood as expansion is, contraction is equally essential. But, for sure, the bigger, more expanded place that contraction (whether thought, feeling or action) comes from, the better.

    • Sharon Salzberg

      I agree about contraction (and the role of a more expanded place). I think Jud will also comment to offer a response.

    • Judson Brewer

      I’d be curious to hear how you experience contraction and it being equally essential -this may be a matter of semantics, as for example, feelings such as emotional states can be experienced in an open non-contracted space, or can be coming from a totally contracted/constricted space. The difference in this example is not the emotional state itself, but how much we identify with it. The identification appears to be associated with contraction, whereas when we aren’t identified with the emotion, it is simply resting in a wide open space of awareness.

    • FelJones

      Thanks for the replies, Sharon and Judson. Judson, I agree with all you said in your reply. I think any difference in what my comment may have implied is that I talk about, and experience, contraction and expansion as the two possible directions of movement of my awareness. Yang and yin, essentially. Whatever the size of the mental space I may be in, I can contract into a smaller area or expand into a larger one. Letting go is, indeed, the road to getting bigger (and I love what you said, Sharon: “…meditation is about letting go an incalculable number of times.” So true.) And contracting does typically involve grasping at/attaching to/identifying with the object of our awareness, be it physical, mental and/or emotional. I guess my point is that contracting, being one of the two basic directions of movement, is absolutely essential. We’d never get anything done without contracting. The challenge in contracting seems to be staying aware of the bigger whole, or the bigger self from which we have contracted, and NOT unconsciously identifying with the object of goal of our contraction. Really hard to do. Phew, big subject! The stuff of life, I’d say. Thanks again for the article and your responses.

    • Lauren Ziegler

      I guess if we didn’t have any contraction our bodies would just splay and flail all over.

  • Louis Schmier

    I’ve found that the error so many of us make when it comes to difference is to inoculate ourselves with a haughtiness, an arrogance, a self-righteousness. I’ve learned over the decades since my epiphany that difference is different, nothing more and nothing less. Especially, as a university teacher–aka professor–I’ve learned to be conscious, to be attentive to and aware of and alert to any feeling of judgment. In the fourth paragraph of my “Teacher’s Oath” I write: “….I will not judge anyone by her or his body piercings or clothes or the whispers of other people or a GPA or an accent or skin color or ethnicity or religion or gender or sexual preference or whatever else.” And, I consciously don’t, for to me difference has nothing to do with right or wrong, better or worse. Difference is only a neutral difference. Beside, most of what we focus on is all so superficial. Underneath, inside, where is counts, we’re all sacred, noble, unique human beings next to other human beings, all wanting to hold a hand of another human being.

  • Gabby

    As this article is entitled “How to train your brain to…,” and then compares experienced and novice meditators, I wondered about two things. One is, would you expect experienced meditators to have more inclination than others to engage constructively in difficult areas with people who might be politically opposite to them? Or are we talking about feeling connected mainly at a calming distance? The other question is, do you see meditation as one of only a few decent ways of achieving a state of loving one’s (perhaps least lovable) neighbors? I would love to see a fuller discussion of the subject. I have definitely known non-meditators who are open-hearted and embracing of others and long-time meditators who are the opposite.

    • Hayden

      I would love to see an answer to Gabby’s questions!

      • Gabby

        Thank you, Hayden, for finding my questions legitimate. While I am not politically distant from most people trying to make this a space for thinking and coming to understanding together, I think the lack of any response to the questions I have posed here does suggest an answer to my first question- that the strategy and practice described above is for people who are already safe themselves to maintain a calming distance from those who may be hurting or who are different rather than connecting or interacting with them.

  • Sharon Werner

    One of my professors did some research on the impact of mindfulness meditation on implicit or unconscious bias. I’m hoping to do similar research on compassion based meditation next year.

  • Garry Coulter

    It really always comes back to how we choose to respond. To someone who upsets us. To someone we upset. To circumstances we may feel powerless in or powerful over. Like everyone I have reacted poorly at times with little compassion for others, took great satisfaction in being superior and forgetting that my actions were destructive. When I have allowed myself to become, at least briefly, the ‘other’, the eyes looking out from the mirror were a little bit more understanding and a tiny bit more humble. For me it is truly a journey of stumbling and falling but hopefully having faith that changing actions can become more effective at dissolving the other till in the end we have through grace, just us. Humans

  • Pingback: Expanding – Please Mind The Gap()

  • Lauren Ziegler

    This is such a great read, I agree that contraction vs. expansion is a literal thing in the brain that research supports. I love the bit about awareness and how meditating gives us the power to be less unconsciously swayed into harmful patters or behaviors.

    I see it like this: the emotion {let’s say ‘guilt’ arises as we do our life and there’s some habit we wish we didn’t have. The contracting energy of guilt accumulates like water at a dam. The water needs an outlet to flow, more and more guilt piles up and it flows how it knows. The build-up is released through an instinctual reaction. So the very behavior we feel guilty about happens because of all this unconscious energy flowing to the reservoir.

    Meditation gives our brains new outlets, new possibilities.

  • Cees Hoogendijk

    I feel a strong connection with the art of Appreciative Inquiry. (Which for me encompasses more than the strength based 4-D process.) From the perspective of the AI Practitioner, one could see ‘to appreciate’ as the act (response? non-act?) in which the given situation or the given person is to be appreciated ‘as such’. Without any filters. (“Houston, we’ve got a situation…”) The act of not-filtering, by the way, is easier said than done. Because – when we think of it – trying to shut off one’s filters has to be achieved with the ‘mind’ that includes that very filters… To appreciate. That’s the first step in responding to any situation or person. The better you succeed, the more room for Inquiry is there. That’s why I think that Appreciative Inquiry is also a human art or even a self-transcending practice…

  • Pingback: DEPTH Picks – DEPTH()