The Brain of a Radical

New research on the neuroscience of sacred values and the willingness to die.

Posted Jun 20, 2019

Peace will come

With tranquility and splendor on the wheels of fire

But will bring us no reward when her false idols fall

And cruel death surrenders with its pale ghost retreating

Between the King and the Queen of Swords

—Bob Dylan

People who hold such strong beliefs that they are willing to turn to violence and radical self-sacrifice are not governed by the psychology of rational choice, according to a recent paper, “Neuroimaging ‘will to fight’ for sacred values: an empirical case study with supporters of an Al Qaeda associate.” 

In the throes of radical belief and the attendant emotional and sociopolitical states, “rational choice theories” are “inadequate to explain or predict willingness to fight and die for a cause if such willingness is shaped by a devotion to sacred values and group identities that people are fused with,” a multinational group of researchers writes. 

They go on to make the following evidence-based observation: “Sacred values are preferences, beliefs and practices that communities deem protected from material trade-offs, as when land or law becomes hold or hallowed, however materially advantageous such values may prove in the evolutionary long run.”

It is becoming evident that any kind of belief systems associated with such powerful ideations, whether political, religious, cultural, or otherwise, may be an evolutionary dead-end. Strong belief shapes cognition, limiting the ability to think flexibly, and is associated with narrower, more constrained personality, among other things.

In the olden days, sacred belief and the willingness to die no doubt was an evolutionary plus for small groups of humans living in an under-resourced, stressful environment. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. And while nowadays having a sense of purpose, holding strong values, and cleaving to them is part of the success recipe, it also often leads to polarization of belief, dark projections of malevolence onto the other, and self-fulfilling prophecies of lethal violence.

In their review of the literature, the researchers note that psychological research on sacred values tells us several important pieces of information. First, when people are embroiled in armed conflict, they don’t care so much about the consequences, becoming numb to the physical costs and rewards of their actions.

When we are "on" strong sacred values, we just aren’t thinking straight, to put it bluntly. And if challenged on those values, people often become morally outraged, willing to sacrifice life, limb, and the safety of their own families in conformity with what their group holds dear. They think this way even when the price is so great that destruction is all but assured. Efforts to prevent violence based on rational interventions are unlikely to be effective because radicalized individuals aren’t functioning as rational actors.

Understanding the neural activity that underlies sacred value thinking and the willingness to fight and die can help to inform interventions that do stand a chance of sparing us from ongoing violence and species-wide suicide—whether it points us toward ways of blunting terrorism or allows us to de-polarize our own fragmented political system.

The study authors go on to discuss the existing neuroscience of sacred value thinking grounding the current work. Many different brain regions are involved: deeper, “subcortical” areas such as the striatum and hippocampus, involved with programmed responses, fear, and post-traumatic reactions; and higher, “cortical” brain areas in the prefrontal (PFC) and parietal cortices.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), for example, helps us weigh decisions involving different factors when values and morality are involved, acting as a “global value comparator” to guide rational decision-making.

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), in turn, exercises influence over the VMPFC to give us a degree of cognitive control over how we make value-based judgments. In other research, the VLPFC has been shown to mediate the effect of social influence on sacred belief, with higher activity in that area predicting less social conformity, suggesting the VLPFC suppresses social circuits elsewhere in the brain.

Being willing to make the ultimate sacrifice can seem like the best and only move—to not do so, in fact, would constitute a moral injury. When we are under attack, again, it makes a certain sense to sacrifice some for the sake of all, providing a partial evolutionary explanation for altruism.

But sometimes the threat is flimsier than it appears, and fighting for it ultimately ill-advised. On the other hand, if your enemy has proven untrustworthy over and over again, letting down your guard is a potentially deadly mistake, making even a slim chance to win a better choice. Without compassion, without trust, without safety, sacred values protect the herd.

New Research on the Radicalized Brain

In order to see what is going on when sacred values brainjack our behavior, leaving us open to fighting and dying for a cause, the research group recruited study participants from the radical Islamist group Lashkar-et-Taiba, The Army of the Righteous, after extensive fieldwork around Barcelona, Spain.

They note this group draws its identity from their mission to recover the last Muslim city to have fallen in Europe, and it has connections with the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and the 2008 Mumbai attacks—of note to me personally as I traveled to Mumbai within two weeks of that event to train disaster mental health responders and journalists.

From a pool of 146 original contacts, they narrowed down a group of 30 participants willing to undergo testing, all of whom reported, first, resonance with jihadism and approval of violence against non-combatants—and furthermore, any combination of the following: more direct support of violence (e.g. a personal willingness to fight), openness to participation in violent protest, openness to join a militia group, and/or a willingness to personally fight and possibly die for the cause.

These are not characteristics unique to jihadists, but characterize radical groups of almost any stripe.

Researchers conducted neuroimaging studies of these 30 participants in conditions of high sacred value and low sacred value, using a meticulous study of each subject’s personal beliefs to devise experimental scenarios designed to pull out their strongest beliefs and compare them to their most milquetoast.

In addition to looking at brain activity between the two conditions, they also measured emotional responses, familiarity with the issues at hand, and how important those issues were more generally, along with other steps, to control for statistical variance and make sure the effect of sacred values on the brain was particular to those beliefs.

Hamid et al., 2019
Scripts testing strong sacred values
Source: Hamid et al., 2019

Beyond the experiment looking at sacred versus non-sacred belief, they also conducted a second experiment to see whether the drive for social conformity would shift belief and intention, as well as brain activity.

To do this, they gave participants false information suggesting that people similar to them, peers from their local area, held either stronger, similar, or weaker beliefs than they did. According to the famed conformity researcher Solomon Asch, social conformity can shift belief and behavior, but strong sacred belief can resist the impact of conformity on belief as well.

Testing participants before and after being exposed to peer pressure was expected to provide insight into whether the psychology of conformity could help ease radicalism, if not changing beliefs then possibly changing intent to behave violently.

The Brain Keeps the Score

The researchers' results are fascinating. On a basic level, they confirmed that strong sacred values are associated with greater willingness to fight and die. Not only that, but for strong sacred values, reaction times were significantly shorter, suggesting “knee-jerk” violent responses when strong belief short-circuits higher brain centers by activating more primal subcortical “fight-flight” circuits.

While the control variables of emotional intensity familiarity and salience of the issues were positively correlated with sacred belief, they did not account for the brain findings after being factored out.

What did the brain look like when gripped by sacred values? Several brain regions showed decreased activity with strong values belief: the DLPFC on both sides, areas in the parietal cortex (discussed above), the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG, involved with inhibiting actions), and the right caudate nucleus (involved in learning and memory storage).

It’s notable that the amygdala didn’t show statistically significant differences, given its role in strong emotion, which researchers chalked up to the sensitivity of the experiment (though I wonder if it might be due to controlling for strong emotion to an extent). Willingness to fight and die, only in the high sacred value condition, was associated with greater VMPFC activity.

In the second experiment, they found that while pressure to socially conform did not affect the strength of sacred value itself, when peers expressed reduced willingness to fight and die than research participants, the participants shifted and expressed less willingness to fight and die for their cause.

Whether this would change actual behavior is unknown. On the emotional level, participants felt either moral outrage or greater joy, depending whether the false peer information opposed or supported their sacred values.

What brain areas were involved with the change in willingness to fight and die? They found that the right DLPFC was. Recall that the DLPFC is involved with cognitive control of the VMPFC (the global value comparator). In the presence of conflicting information (weaker sacred values expressed by peers), the right DLPFC changes its activity, in association with less willingness to fight and die even while the strength of conviction remains unchanged. 

They also found that the insula, a brain area associated with internal monitoring of body and emotions, was more activated in correlation with moral outrage.

Can We Break the Cycle of Violence?

These findings are a good point of departure for future research. They show that higher brain centers exhibit significantly reduced activity when sacred belief is high and associated with the willingness to employ personal violence and sacrifice of oneself and one’s loved ones for a cause.

In keeping with prior research, specific brain areas involved with cognitive control of value-based decision making, response inhibition, and learning and memory seem to be altered by violent sacred belief in this study group.

As we’d generally expect, the more recently evolved areas of the brain that weigh rational factors, consider future consequences, and inhibit reflective reactions are weaker, and some areas associated with strong emotion, such as the insula, are activated.

Interestingly, for unclear reasons, the flagship fight-flight amygdala did not show differences between study conditions in this research, as one would expect.

Importantly, in considering how to intervene to reduce violence and mitigate radicalism, when participants believed peers held weaker sacred beliefs, they were less likely to endorse violent action when embroiled with strong sacred beliefs. Their beliefs and emotions remained powerful and with just as much conviction, but they were less open to the idea of making great sacrifices. While interventions may not de-radicalize people, investigators note, social messaging could allow radicals to disengage from violent action without having to relinquish cherished beliefs.

Future research is needed to see whether the effect on willingness to fight leads to more consistent changes in attitude and behavior. This would be useful on two levels: first, by directly reducing violent action on an individual level, and second, by reducing the spread of pro-violence thinking.

Sacred beliefs may be preserved without connecting as readily to violent action. This is appealing as it sets the stage for mutual respect and containment of even mutually exclusive beliefs and perspectives while ensuring safety by preventing the violent expression of them.

Per Sigmund Freud's prescription from his Introductory Lectures, “Es war, soll Ich werden.” This literally translates into, “Where it was, there I shall be.” It is the basis for the more familiar quote, “Where id was, there ego shall be.”

The rational mind is meant to tame the passions, civilization to prevail over chaos and destruction. When group psychology and sacred belief take over, the more advanced brain areas are inhibited and reason and foresight lose their power. This, in turn, permits further polarization and destructive group dynamics to take hold, leading to violent action and reinforcement of threat and the need for defensive sacred beliefs. (Freud later went on to famously correspond with Albert Einstein about how our species might cure war, a poignant exchange because of their shared cultural experience as Jewish people living in pre-WWII Europe).

Rather than living together with disparate beliefs but congruent actions, a win-win situation if resources are allocated properly, we live in a mammalian (even reptilian) world where it seems like the annihilation of the other is the path to the survival of our own group.

Unfortunately, in this state of mind, we fail to see that we are utterly dependent upon one another, losing both compassion and foresight, abdicating responsibility, and shutting down the more developed and sophisticated areas of the brain.

Post-Script: The Freud-Einstein Letters Discussing War and Its Prevention (1931-32)

It's worth reading the full correspondence, but here is a very short excerpt:

"And so we come to our last question. Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called “intelligentsia” that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form–upon the printed page."  —Einstein

"To conclude: I have so far been speaking only of wars between nations; what are known as international conflicts. But I am well aware that the aggressive instinct operates under other forms and in other circumstances. (I am thinking of civil wars, for instance, due in earlier days to religious zeal, but nowadays to social factors; or, again, the persecution of racial minorities.) But my insistence on what is the most typical, most cruel and extravagant form of conflict between man and man was deliberate, for here we have the best occasion of discovering ways and means to render all armed conflicts impossible. I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action." —Freud

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Hamid N et al. 2019 Neuroimaging ‘will to fight’ for sacred values: an empirical case study with supporters of an Al Qaeda associate. R. Soc. open sci. 6: 181585.