The Neuroscience of Gentleness

Hiding from fear does not allow us to deal with it.  It can even become more powerful as we are afraid to even address a weakness.  It can make us even more anxious by trying to hide from our vulnerability.  We can be fiercely alive by drawing it out and working through it.

If a group is willing to be vulnerable together, then they will have the strength of working through conflict.  The hippocampus helps store and create memories.  When someone feels comfortable with those around them, they will be invited to share the content of their memories.  If the environment is hostile or others do not draw out risky or vulnerable areas with one another safely, people may unconsciously or consciously hide memories and details that might show weakness.  Unless a group is able to investigate and overcome their weaknesses together in safety, those weaknesses will remain but in an unspoken or hidden way. Extreme fear will sometimes result in deep psychological defense mechanisms that are not based in reality. Deep fear might cause people to live in delusions or paranoia.  But with courage, we can see what is true and real.  We can engage our weak spots and allow others to see our own.   

What might seem like a weakness, such as showing a vulnerability, is actually a strength as it allows weak spots to be addressed and overcome.  Addressing perceived weaknesses together allows for creativity and adaptation.  It allows for growth and change.  

The Neuroscience of Prejudice

One might argue that hardness would be the opposite of gentleness.  Neurologically prejudice is just that.  When our hearts have become hardened in positions that do not correlate to reality then real hurt can occur.  This is hurt not just to others, but also to ourselves.  When we move through the world in either conscious or unconscious bias, we do not allow ourselves to open up to possibilities.  We can be wrecking balls of hate without even knowing it.  

Prejudice is generally defined as a preconceived judgment or irrational attitude.  It often involves hostility.  Prejudice can be callous or harsh. It prevents the truth from being heard. It is the ground of discrimination and animosity.  

There are several parts of the brain associated with prejudice.  The amygdala involves our association with threats.  As the mind creates and maintains understanding of threats, our ideas can become reinforced.  The anterior insula involves the process of negative affect.  The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) helps put things in perspective and bring them into a mental picture. While the mPFC helps us categorize the world, the downside is that our categorizations can be completely false though they seem real to us.  All these structures taken together help categorize ingroup and outgroup.[i]  Positive attitudes toward an ingroup are supported by the striatum.  Within cultural contexts, when we are told to believe stereotypes and prejudice, the neural circuitry to perpetuate hate gets strengthened and then passed on to the next generation.  Sadly, prejudice can be either conscious or unconscious.  Many people who are full of hate might not realize there is another way because of how they were raised or taught. Prejudice is a poison that lives in the body that oozes out into the world.  Prejudice and hate often moves from generation to generation in a cycle of trauma.  And it is our children who become the victims of this horrible cycle.

Strengthening the Habit of Gentleness – Active Listening and Intentional Question Skills

Literal Repetition: Feeling heard, understood and being known are very important.  To repeat back what someone has said, shows that you care and have been listening. 

Reflecting:Is a way of rearticulating the emotional content of what is being said. Example: “It sounds like you’ve had a long and overwhelming day…” 

Paraphrasing:Rewords dialogue for the speaker and lets them know that you have been listening.  Example: “I hear you saying that…”

Summarizing: Can help focus on the emotional content of what is being said.  Example: “It sounds like you’re feeling…” 

Open Ended Questions:Avoid a yes or no response. Often will begin with how, why or what. Could also begin with did or does.  Example: “What’s on your mind tonight?” instead of “Is there something on your mind?”

Buffering: Can help soften a difficult emotion. As an example, “You may not want to talk about this now, but…” 

Understatement / Euphemism:If something seems understated it can be drawn out in case the speaker might be unconsciously hiding from it. 

Tell me more / Minimal encouragement: Helps the speaker know that your interest and attention are with them.  Example: “Tell me more about…” 

Calling Attention: Pointing out something that may be unnoticed or unconscious such as tears.  Example: “I saw some tears welling up in your eyes.  What’s on your heart?” 

Hovering: If the topic is painful or risky, it can help bring the dialogue back on track if the speaker touches on something but then moves to another subject.[ii] 

[i]“The Neuroscience of Prejudice and Stereotyping,”ResearchGate, accessed July 10, 2018,

[ii]Robert A. Kidd, “Foundational Listening and Responding Skills,”inProfessional Spiritual & Pastoral Care: A Practical Clergy and Chaplain’s Handbook, ed. Stephen Roberts (Vermont: Skylight Paths, 2012), 92-105.

Short Video on the Neuroscience of Gentleness vs Prejudice