Mt. Airy peace activist dies of brain cancer at 47

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Mt. Airy resident Emile Bruneau, a lecturer who served as director of Annenberg’s Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, died of brain cancer on Sept. 29. He was 47.

“In these last few weeks of hospice, we have had a vision of Emile resting peacefully on a raft, floating farther and farther from our shore,” wrote his wife, Stephanie, former director of Mt. Airy Learning Tree and a Mt. Airy native. “This raft has been drifting in a sea of our collective love, shared memories and well wishes. The raft has finally crossed the horizon line. He is still there, somewhere, but out of sight to us on shore.”

Emile Bruneau was born in California at Stanford Hospital in the fall of 1972. Shortly after his birth, his mother developed schizophrenia, and the challenges of this illness were life-altering. She spent much of the rest of her life struggling with this disease, often experiencing homelessness and relying on the kindness of strangers. Bruneau was raised by his single father for the first few years of his life, and later by his father and stepmother.

Despite what might have been a traumatic situation, Bruneau always spoke of his childhood as idyllic, and credits his mother for inspiring what would become one of his core professional interests: empathy. As he sought to understand his mother’s reality, he developed a strong sense of empathy at an early age, as well as a desire to understand more about the human mind.

Bruneau attended Stanford University where he majored in human biology. He competed on the Stanford rugby team, where he was known for both the ferocity of his tackle and the integrity of his sportsmanship.

After graduating, Bruneau volunteered in newly post-apartheid South Africa and then spent the next seven years in the Bay Area, teaching high school science and, later, PE at the Peninsula School, a progressive elementary school he had attended in his youth. He also coached the Stanford women’s rugby team, earned a black belt in karate and rebuilt a 1929 Ford Model A, which he later drove across the country with his father.

On one of his summer breaks, Bruneau volunteered at a conflict resolution-focused camp for Catholic and Protestant boys in “The Troubles”-era Ireland. After three weeks of seeming success, where friendships formed between boys from both groups, it all came crashing down on the last day when an all-out brawl broke out, split along religious lines. Bruneau realized then that conflict resolution strategies were typically devised on instinct, without any scientific evidence as to what actually works. That recognition sparked his research interest in learning which strategies might be effective in building lasting peace.

On a different break from teaching, he traveled to visit friends in Sri Lanka. Just hours after his arrival, Tamil Tigers bombed the airport where he had flown in. Bruneau spent the next several weeks trailing two journalist friends as they interviewed people on both sides of the conflict. Having seen groups in conflict all over the globe, Bruneau began to reflect on how the antipathy people have about opposing groups was surprisingly consistent.

With these ideas in the back of his mind, at 29, Bruneau entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan in cellular and molecular neuroscience. While there, his research team discovered that synapses, the connections between nerves and their targets, are incredibly dynamic, driving home to him that at the sub-cellular level, our brains are made to change.

Realizing he would need to learn the tools of human neuroimaging, he approached Rebecca Saxe, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, and over the course of an intense three-hour conversation, talked her into taking him on as a postdoctoral fellow. Focusing on empathy, he used MRI to study the brains of people on opposite sides of conflicts, such as Israelis and Palestinians or Republicans and Democrats. He began to identify brain regions associated with conflict and how different experimental interventions altered participants’ brain activity.

In 2015, Bruneau moved to the Annenberg School at Penn to become a visiting scholar in Professor Emily Falk’s Communication Neuroscience Lab. After a year, he made the move to Philadelphia permanent, becoming a Research Associate and Lecturer at Annenberg and taking on several postdoctoral fellows.

At Annenberg, Bruneau established the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab, whose tagline neatly summarizes Bruneau’s professional mission: “putting science to work for peace.” “Emile brought so many different groups of people together — scientists, filmmakers, NGOs, everyday people living in conflict — using all of the tools at our disposal to rigorously test what works and why,” said Emily Falk.

The interventions he designed were specific and operational. In a 2012 paper he wrote with Rebecca Saxe for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Bruneau worked with Mexican Americans and White Americans in Arizona, as well as Israelis and Palestinians, and found that when groups of people with less power share their stories and perspectives with someone in an opposing group with more power, both came to like each other more.

“As a scientist, Emile was rigorous, realistic and humble,” said Saxe. “At the same time, he was a visionary, and he pulled people in with his passion … Only someone with his gift for relating to human beings could have done these groundbreaking studies.”

Annenberg School Dean John L. Jackson, Jr. described Bruneau as “the most humane person I have ever met. He walked in the world with such self-evident and conspicuous love on his proverbial sleeves. I found him an inspiration.”

Bruneau and his wife loved the natural world. In Boston, they ran a small beekeeping business called The Benevolent Bee, selling honey and beeswax products. In their backyard, they have a garden and chicken coop. Bruneau would nearly always bike the 11 miles to and from the Annenberg School, and always brought his own container to the food trucks to avoid generating trash.

After he passed away, Stephanie shared a piece of writing she found on his computer, addressed to her and written just before his first brain surgery in January, 2019:

"I learned in physics that our physical mass never actually touches another. The outer electrons of each repel, giving us the illusion of touch. As a neuroscientist, I learned that our brains don't really see the world; they just interpret it. So losing my body is not really a loss, after all! What I am to you is really a reflection of your own mind. I am, and always was, there in you."

Bruneau has been buried in a wildflower meadow in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, where the family tended beehives and spent many happy times. He is survived by his wife and his two young children, Clara and Atticus.

This obituary was prepared by the communications department at Penn. Donations in honor of Emile can be made to the Germantown Mutual Aid Fund or the Miquon School’s Financial Aid Fund. To see a film of Emile, visit https://youtu.be/kJvfqft5v9U

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