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Pink Brain? Blue Brain? Some research on radicalisation and brains

(12 Posts)
RedToothBrush Wed 12-Jun-19 11:24:16

Just saw this and thought it was an interesting discussion with implications for radicalisation, affirmation and echo chambers.
The First Ever Brain Scans Of Jihadists Show How Radicalisation Alters The Mind

"We’re not finding anything bizarre going on with the brain... It’s just normal functions being directed in a particular way."
The neuroscience of terrorism: how we convinced a group of radicals to let us scan their brains

A couple of extracts from both articles:

You’re then told the reason for the survey is to find people suitable for a brain scan. And those few people would be the most radicalised ones we could find; a fact that would only be revealed in the post-experiment debrief. To our surprise, the part about the brain scans piqued people’s interest.

The responses varied from concerned: “You think there’s something wrong with my brain?”, to pride: “There’s definitely something different about my brain.” Even the most hardcore jihadist supporters tapped into their nerdy side and started asking questions about how the brain works, what we’ve found in other studies, and what might the implications be of this research. Some would even ask us for medical advice (we had to explain that we weren’t those kind of doctors). Once satisfied about the scientific merit of the work, most consented to participate.


Scientists have looked for the first time at the brain patterns of Islamist radicals, showing that the part of the brain associated with deliberative reasoning deactivates when a person is willing to fight and die for a "sacred cause" — and that the opinions of their peers can change that way of thinking.

Researchers from the UK, Spain, and the US carried out brain scans on groups of men at various stages of radicalisation for Artis International, a research group that studies the role of "sacred values" in violent conflicts around the world.

The study, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, found that when a subject was willing to fight and die for what they considered to be "sacred values", activity in the areas of the brain associated with deliberative reasoning decreased. Instead, they showed high activity in a different part of the brain: one associated with subjective perceptions of value, such as what a person finds beautiful.


Activity in the part of the brain associated with deliberative reasoning was lower when a subject considered willingness to fight and die for "sacred values" (such as not caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed) than when they considered "non-sacred" values (such as women wearing the niqab).

However, when a person is willing to fight and die for a cause, the part of the brain associated with deliberation (their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) becomes disconnected from the part associated with what they value (their ventromedial prefrontal cortex). When a person is less willing to fight and die for a cause, the two areas reconnect – and that person is open to reason.


In one experiment, the researchers asked the subjects to identify the extent to which they were willing to fight and die for both "sacred" values (such as not caricaturing the Prophet Mohammed) and "non-sacred" values (such as women wearing the niqab). They then told the subjects that their peers had responded differently: inventing either a higher, equivalent, or lower willingness to fight and die for the purposes of the experiment.

After learning their "peers'" responses, the subjects were asked the same question again. The second time, they altered their answers. Crucially, if they were told that their peers were less willing to fight and die for a cause than they were, the subjects expressed outrage, but ultimately lowered their willingness, as well.

Simultaneously, the part of the brain associated with deliberative reasoning was activated once more.


"What we’ve found is that one main vector of influence in being able to achieve that, is through people’s perceptions of what other people think."


Despite years of research to the contrary, two oversimplified categories of thinking about violent extremism still continue to hold sway in public opinion. On the one hand are those who want to reduce radicalisation to an individual pathology. In this view, people who become terrorists are all mentally ill, have a low IQ, or a personality disorder. On the other are those who ignore the individual altogether and explain away those who become terrorists by purely environmental factors – whether it’s poverty, marginalisation, or being “brainwashed” by online propaganda.

So radicalisation tends to either be seen as caused by individual characteristics or purely social factors. And of course, neither of these depictions are true. We are instead trying to get to the bottom of the interplay between these factors.


We’re part of an international research team, Artis International, that’s been studying something called “sacred values” and their role in violent conflicts around the world. Sacred values are moral values that are non-negotiable and inviolable. You certainly wouldn’t trade them in for material incentives. Despite the label “sacred”, these values don’t have to be religious.

For example, most readers would likely consider individual liberty a basic right. If it could be guaranteed that the entire world would experience untold levels of economic prosperity and individual wealth, and to achieve this all we would need to do is enslave a tiny fraction of the world’s population, would you agree to it? If not, anti-slavery is a sacred value for you

I find this UTTERLY fascinating.

Think about the implications for crowd control, social manipulation and for exploitation in various ways.

OP’s posts: |
Barracker Wed 12-Jun-19 11:54:55

Oh my gosh.

So, when you care too much about fitting in with your peers, any 'sacred values' you hold are beyond reach or reason.

But when you are aware of being out of step with your peers on your sacred values, you experience discomfort, but become more open to reason again.

Familiarity (being in lockstep with peers) breeds contempt (for individual reasoning).
I don't need to bother thinking things through if I'm surrounded by my gang.

Peer pressure, mob rule is dangerous.
I've always thought it's important to cultivate resilience of mind in children by encouraging them to withstand the discomfort of being the odd one out, when their personal reasoning leads them to that place.

I bet that many of the posters here have a lifetime's experience in knowing how it feels, that sensation of being the odd one out and wondering, 'how did I come to be the only one holding this view, in opposition to my peers, once again?'

RedToothBrush Wed 12-Jun-19 12:44:39

We have a generation growing up in social media bubbles and we have rise in extremism across the board.

This is coupled with a certain lack of reasoning and critical thought and this dominance of identity (and more specifically a sense of belonging that comes from that) as a value.

It would also bring into question how 'affirmative only' approaches work - and how they might have weaknesses over a long term and put younger (or more vulnerable) people at particular risk. And there is a nod to co-mordity between mental health type issues / vulnerability.

It also hints at how society as a whole can be manipulated and the Overton window pushed by media distortion.

And this all has a physical effect on the brain.

Fascinating stuff.

OP’s posts: |
RedToothBrush Wed 12-Jun-19 12:51:39

In other words.

Freedom of speech is quite a good thing to stop radicalisation as long as there is a breadth of views and they don't exist within echo chambers.

OP’s posts: |
Goosefoot Wed 12-Jun-19 12:56:19

*Peer pressure, mob rule is dangerous.
I've always thought it's important to cultivate resilience of mind in children by encouraging them to withstand the discomfort of being the odd one out, when their personal reasoning leads them to that place.*

I think our approach to childhood is almost the opposite of resilience building now.

banivani Wed 12-Jun-19 12:58:05

This was super interesting, thank you for posting about it.

Dervel Wed 12-Jun-19 13:10:05

It’s probably worth pointing out that extremist and radicalised ideologies are less likely to flourish in societies where women have reproductive rights and equal access to education.

RedToothBrush Wed 12-Jun-19 13:17:20

Women have different priorities Dervel. If they have the power to express them, then that will of course affect politics and perhaps decrease extremism because more views and values are being represented and listened to.

Reproductive restrictions Rob women of the power to be part of the communication network because they simply do not have the time and ability to participate.

OP’s posts: |
ByGrabtharsHammarWhatASaving Wed 12-Jun-19 13:56:05

Very very interesting, thanks for sharing!

plattercake Wed 12-Jun-19 16:32:50

Fascinating, yes.

And the reference to the black and white, polarised thinking of previous explanations (either all the individual or all society) when reasoned critical thinking tells us that it is very likely to be a combination of both, and individuals will sit somewhere on that spectrum (or possibly some kind of Venn diagram)...

Perhaps they should brain scan the people who come up with some of these polarised opinions. I bet many results would look just the same!

PolkadotGiraffe Wed 09-Dec-20 14:33:34


deepwatersolo Wed 09-Dec-20 22:46:53

I have just come across an article about how the EU funds research that predicts crime via artificial intelligence (learning algorithms). They keep the sources of the enormous data sets required for training the algorithm secret, they keep the results secret (one project has ended and for the others the unnamed ethics committee has recommended keeping results secret). This is some scary sh*t. It all sounds great in the context of violent jihadists, but what if it is used to break people’s resistance against tyrannical policies? Like those (Not only) natives protesting a pipline threatening their water (DAPLA?), climate protests, something like occupy Wall Street, or against people protesting that ‚woman‘ is nothing but a feeling... These are scary prospects for humanity. (And I very much doubt the EU is an outlier regarding such programs and the surrounding secrecy). They really want to turn us into lemmings.

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