The Neuroscience of Forgiveness: The Case of the Rwandan Genocide

Rwanda2 Jina Moore in Search magazine:

Neurologically speaking, forgiveness is not one event. The brain doesn’t choose to forgive without first assessing the forgivability of an offense. Usually, we consider this a matter of morality or justice—how wrong was the wrong, and what does the person who perpetrated it deserve? Our brains may be decoding the answer to this question independent of our conscience.

Neuroscientists Tom F.D. Farrow and Peter W.R. Woodruff at the University of Sheffield have found that our brains may make neurological distinctions that we have tried to blur, with ethics or religion, when it comes to our behavior. The part of the brain most active when we practice empathy, for instance, is not the same part of the brain that assesses whether or not the person we are empathizing with deserves to be forgiven. It’s too early to say so definitively, but Farrow and Woodruff write that the research “suggest[s] that attempting to understand others (i.e., empathizing) is physiologically distinct from determining the forgivability of their actions.” They also write that there is evidence, from neurological studies of empathy and other social judgments, that “we [may] more easily forgive people we like.”

Cases in Rwanda support this: It took a week of prayer and soul-searching before Alice decided to forgive Emmanuel. She says forgiveness was possible only with God, but if the neurologists are right, it’s plausible she came around in part because she liked Emmanuel. They had built up a friendship working together on community projects, and their comfort with and admiration for each other is easy to feel. They speak with an ease, almost an intimacy; they are quietly protective of each other, empathizing with each other as they tell the story of their relationship. When Emmanuel explains that he was taught to hate Tutsis from the time he was a child, Alice chimes in and talks about the discrimination she experienced as a girl in school. The story suggests what she does not say: I know how it happened, and where it came from, and I can understand it.