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No One A Stranger, Everyone Strong

What we can learn from chimps and strangers: We need to belong, we need to "see" each other.

Photo of Elle Allison-Napolitano
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This inspiration comes from two researchers I was most fortunate to hear speak at the recent “Being Human” conference held in San Francisco on September 28, 2013: Susan Fiske from Princeton and Robert Sapolskyfrom Stanford. Fiske shared research on “stranger compassion” indicating that when humans meet a stranger and decide the stranger is like him or herself, the medial frontal cortex in his or her brain lights up. This means the brain is activelythinking about what the person’s motive might be; what they might be thinking and what they might need. Alternatively, when a human meets a stranger and labels the person as “other,” the medial frontal cortex appears to go “off line.” This means the brain is turning away from the other person and is not thinking about what the person needs or feels. Sapolsky, who is a primate scientist, shared research on belonging and stress. Sapolsky tellsus that dominant chimps for example, have less stress hormones coursing through their bodies. Non-dominant chimps on the other hand experience an enormous amount of stress—as evidenced by increased stress hormones coursing throughtheir bodies. Moreover, when non-dominant chimps find a group within the tribe where they are accepted and respected (not being pummeled by dominant tribemembers), their stress hormones decrease. As I listened to Fiske and Sapolsky,I began to imagine how a kid must feel as the target of bullying and how, if only all kids could see each other as “us” and not “them” and if only all kids could belong to a group where they shine, then how creative all kids could be!

After all, when we feel under siege, either emotionally orphysically, creativity is silenced. All we can think of when bullied, issurvival. All we feel is fear. What if we taught kids to hold simple conversations where they learned more about each other? What if theseconversations were standard practice from Kindergarten up?

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