The Science and Psychology of Polarisation

David Fuller
Aug 8 · 5 min read
This article accompanies Rebel Wisdom’s new series of films on the subject

How can we even begin to understand and solve our biggest problems if our conversations about them keep breaking down?

The growing polarisation of western societies started before social media, but it is continuing to accelerate —as more and more of us retreat into ideological camps and see the “other side” as at best irrational, at worst, mortal enemies.

As the evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein pithily explains, our current situation means “you can’t dance with the one that brought you”. Meaning, in evolutionary terms, many of our innate programmes, particularly for tribalism, violence and rivalry, will end in a self-extinctionary path if we can’t learn to ‘repurpose the hardware’.

Many are focusing on polarisation itself, and therefore the ability to have conversations across the divides, as an existential issue, and putting forward solutions.

A forthcoming book from US academics Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay looks at “How to Have Impossible Conversations”, outlining conversation strategies and techniques, including weapons grade skills taken from hostage negotiation and cult deprogramming. (Out in September: Link here)

Collective Psychology Project

In the UK, former government adviser Alex Evans, is launching the ‘Collective Psychology Project’, based on his experiences of the entrenched suspicion and conflict of Israeli society, and the growing parallels with Trump’s US and Brexit Britain.

“It turns out that democracy really depends on having a citizenry that has a capacity to manage its mental and emotional states. But then if you look at is that something we teach in schools, not really. We’re actually pretty unsure whose job it is to help us navigate those things that are right at the cusp of inner and outer and right at the cusp of the individual and the collective. I think that’s probably because historically this is what religions have been in charge of. And then as religiosity has declined and as religion has retreated from public life we sort of looked around thinking well who is in charge of this now. We’re really not sure.”

In Lindsay and Boghossian’s book they identify psychological safety as a key ingredient in the “impossible conversations”.

This was also a central focus of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, a loose affiliation of podcasters and thinkers supposedly defined by their adherence to a set of good faith principles of argumentation, in order to have difficult conversations that covered new ground. Coined by mathematician and physicist Eric Weinstein (brother of Bret), the term quickly spread.

As IDW member and evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein said in an interview with Rebel Wisdom: “The media conversation requires a kind of safety. And the thing that the IDW has done is it has bootstrapped that kind of safety on topics where people experience in general a profound lack of safety.

“So I think the reason that there has been such a focus on the IDW is that people through the Internet can watch others saying things — the very nuance of which would cause them to blow up if you said them you know in a speech on a university campus.”

A crucial part of ‘repurposing the hardware’ is understanding how that hardware works. In Rebel Wisdom’s new series of films, we also bring in a perspective from counselling and trauma work, that is not yet a part of the mainstream conversation, but we believe is a crucial missing ingredient.

This is the work of from pioneering trauma researchers Peter Levine and Dr Stephen Porges. Their work since the 1960s, ‘Somatic Experiencing’ and ‘Polyvagal Theory’, looks at how the nervous system responds to threat, and the need for psychological safety.

Porges’s work in particular — his Polyvagal Theory — has become hugely influential in the world of counselling and therapy. As he says, understanding the neurobiology of threat perception helps us avoid being caught up in it: “I put on one of my slides a couple of days ago a kind of modification of what Dupont the chemical company used to say used to advertise ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’. What polyvagal theory is saying is ‘Better Living Through Neurobiology’.”

Polyvagal looks at the function of the Vagus nerve, the longest in the body, which goes to all the major organs and links to the brain and also the muscles of the face and voice.

It moderates feelings of trust and safety, or threat perception, and shows how that connects to our social engagement system and therefore transmits to and from others.

Both polyvagal and somatic experiencing show how, if we are not feeling safe, we cannot take in new information. And curiosity and openness are essential for a conversation that might cover new ground or change minds.

As Peter Levine says: “You can’t be curious and defensive at the same time, the physiology that doesn’t allow them to both be there.”

What does that mean practically, and most importantly, how can we ‘hack’ our physiology to overcome threat response and have more generative conversations? One of the most simple ways is through the breath — which connects directly with the vagus nerve.

In our film, flow expert Jamie Wheal talks about the research at Stanford by scientist Andrew Huberman combining long ‘vagal tone’ breathing (long ten second exhales through the nose with a short two second hold before breathing in again) with soft focus vision.

“If you go soft focus, meaning that you’re focusing your eyes to the outside of your field of vision and you do vagus nerve breathing. So the super slow exhales - a whole inhale and you do it through your nose. You completely draw your physiological threat response.”

Most of all, this seems to be an area whose time has come, Alex Evans agrees that many are zeroing in on this area: “This isn’t an idea that’s really surfaced much until recently and now it feels like a lot of people are converging onto this territory. It feels like this is something that’s kind of ripe that’s ready to mature and take root in the world.”

Stephen Porges agrees: “The bottom line is I think we are giving more and more people are having this understanding because now you have with polyvagal theory, a neurobiology that supports the philosophical and for many people even a spiritual or religious view. So you have a convergence of different orientations all ending up in the same point.”


Watch the series on Rebel Wisdom: https://www.rebelwisdom.co.uk/

Rebel Wisdom is a media platform founded by BBC & Channel 4 filmmaker David Fuller, on the conviction that we are seeing a civilisational-level crisis of ideas, as the old operating system breaks down. The new is struggling to emerge — and the most transformative ideas always show up first as rebellious.

When our existing assumptions and ways of thinking break down, it’s the rebels and the renegades, those who dare to think differently, who are needed to reboot the system.

David Fuller

Written by

Journalist and documentary maker, for Channel 4, BBC, The Economist and others — see www.davidfuller.tv or https://twitter.com/fullydavid

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