John Medina: What Mediators Can Learn from the Brain Science of Grief Counseling

May 4-5, 2012
19th Annual Northwest Dispute Resolution Conference

3.1 What Mediators Can Learn from the Brain Science of Grief Counseling

John J. Medina, Affiliate Professor, Bioengineering, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

Saturday, May 5, 2012 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.

Professor Medina will discuss brain research that mediators can use in their practice. He will review the concept of Theory of Mind and what stimulates the executive function and creativity. He will then focus on brain science research about how traditional grief counseling does not work and how new approaches being developed are relevant to mediation.

This talk involves a cognitive process called Theory of Mind, often abbreviated “ToM.”

What is Theory of Mind? The best illustration may be an example. This one comes from Ernest Hemingway, who was once challenged to write an entire novel in only six words. He wrote something that could easily be found on Craigslist these days, and considers it his best work:

For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never used.

Do these six words make you sad? Make you wonder what happened to the person who wrote it? Can you infer the mental state of the author, perhaps a couple?

Most humans can, and we use ToM skills to do it. First coined by noted primatologist David Premack, Theory of Mind, has two components. The first is the ability to detect someone else’s interior psychological state, their intentions, their beliefs, their motivations. The second is the realization that though these states may be different than your own, they are still valid for the person with whom you are interacting. You develop a theory of how their mind works, even if it differs from your own.

Your reaction to the six words above is instructive. These could have been written by a couple who’s baby died shortly after birth - and you feel the pangs of their sadness and empathize. You may never have experienced the grief of having lost a child – you may not even have children. Nonetheless, using your advanced Theory of Mind skills, you can experience their reality. The shortest novel in the world can reveal a universe of feeling because of it.

As this talk will explain, Theory of Mind skills are a very important component of any human interaction. It is especially important when trying to resolve conflict.

Dr. John J. Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, has a lifelong fascination with how the mind reacts to and organizes information. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School -- a provocative book that takes on the way our schools and work environments are designed. His latest book is a must-read for parents and early-childhood educators: Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five. Medina is an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is also the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.

See the website, resources and videos for John Medina's New York Times' Bestseller, Brain Rules, at


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Comment by Jeff Bean on May 30, 2012 at 3:38pm

Here are there references John cited during his session:

The book

Wilson TD (2011)
Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change
Little, Brown and Company (New York)

The effectiveness of CISD is questionable (that’s the grief counseling)

Bisson JI et al (1997)
Randomized controlled trial of psychological debriefing for victims of acute burn trauma
Brit J Psych 171: 788 - 81

Carlier, I.V.E et al (2000)
The influence of occupational debriefing on post-traumatic stress symptomatology in traumatized police officers
Brit J Med Psych 73: 87 - 98

McNally RJ et al (2003)
Does early psychological intervention promote recovery from posttraumatic stress?
Psyc Sci Pub Int 4: 45 - 79

Great quote from McNally. It is from p. 72 of the above paper

“For scientific and ethical reasons, professionals should cease compulsory debriefing of trauma-exposed people.”

Why does it not work? Might be because it does not allow us the healing balm of putting a positive spin on things. And we do like to put a positive spin on things

Scheier, MF et al (2001)
Optimism, pessimism and psychological well-being. In E.C. Chang *Ed.), Optimism and Pessimism (pp. 189 – 216) Washington, DC, American Psychological Association

Taylor, S & Sherman D (2008)
Self-enhancement and self-affirmation: The consequences of positive self-thoughts for motivation and health. In J.Y. Shah and W. L/ Gardner (Eds.); Handbook of Motivation Science pp. 57 – 70
New York, Guilford

Flyvbjerg, B (2008)
Curbing optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation in Planning: Reference class forecasting in practice
Eur Plan St 16: 3 – 21

Sharot, T et al (2007)
Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias
Nature 450: 102 - 105

We know what does work for grief counseling. The first hints came from the canonical work of Kurt Lewin

Lewin, K (1951)
Field theory in social science: selected theoretical papers (Ed. by D. Cartwright) New York: Harper & Rowe

From Lewin’s work, the Pennebaker protocol was developed

Pennebaker, JW (1997)
Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions (rev. ed.)
New York, Guilford

Pennebaker, JW (2004)
Writing to heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval
Oakland CA New Harbinger Publications

People who go through this show improvement in immune-system function, are less likely to visit physicians, get better grades, miss fewer days of work.

Frattaroli, J (2006)
Experimental disclosure and its moderators: A meta-analysis
Psych Bull 132: 823 – 865

The writing technique works well for conflict resolution as well.

Ray R. et al (2008)
All in the mind’s eye? Anger rumination and reappraisal.
J Pers & Soc Psych 94: 133 – 145

Kross E (2009)
When the self becomes other: Toward an integrative understanding of the processes distinguishing adaptive self-reflection from rumination.
New York Acad Sci 1167: 35 – 40

Kross E & Ayduk, O (2008)
Facilitating adaptive emotional analysis: Distinguishing distanced-analysis of depressive experiences from immersed-analysis and distraction
Pers & Soc Pysch Bull 34: 924 – 938

Kross et al (2005)
When asking “why” does not hurt: Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions
Psych Sci 16: 709 – 715

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