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On the 10th of April this year Pope Francis, President Salva Kiir of South Sudan and former rebel leader Riek Machar sat down together for dinner at the Vatican. They ate in silence, the start of a two-day retreat aimed at reconciliation from a civil war that has killed some 400,000 people since 2013. At about the same time in my laboratory at the University of Sussex in England, Ph.D. student Alberto Mariola was putting the finishing touches to a new experiment in which volunteers experience being in a room that they believe is there but that is not. In psychiatry clinics across the globe, people arrive complaining that things no longer seem “real” to them, whether it is the world around them or their own selves. In the fractured societies in which we live, what is real—and what is not—seems to be increasingly up for grabs. Warring sides may experience and believe in different realities. Perhaps eating together in silence can help because it offers a small slice of reality that can be agreed on, a stable platform on which to build further understanding.

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Category: Science