Cognitive Triggers for Extremist Violence Through Brain Scanning

Long – time contributor to Art Earth Tech, Nafees Hamid has written a forthcoming paper for the Royal Society Open Science journal. The paper reveals ground-breaking insights into the psychology of radicalisation and terrorist violence; gained by scanning the brains of men who support a terror organisation associated with Al Qaeda. We are thrilled to share some of his findings with you.

Prior research has demonstrated the pivotal influence of ‘sacred values’ (a potent subset of moral values) in underpinning radical ideologies and the escalation to violent extremism. These values are resistant to conventional forms of moderation, compromise or negotiation and, as such, present a huge challenge to counter-radicalisation efforts based on material incentives and/or sanctions.

Nafees Hamid

Artis has found that this phenomenon is directly represented in the brain, with areas normally associated with rational, utilitarian reasoning showing markedly less activity when the question of violent action in defence of these sacred values is raised.

It has also been determined that more moderate views, when expressed by peers, may help ‘dial down’ the propensity toward violent action. This again directly evidenced by observed changes in brain functioning.

This helps validate ongoing efforts to incorporate the sacred values paradigm into counter-radicalisation strategies, while also indicating that a peer influence approach may be most effective in moderating extremist violence.

Global research organisation Artis International has been conducting in-depth studies into contemporary armed conflict for over a decade with a focus on the cultural and behavioural factors that drive violent extremism. The established anthropological concept of sacred values has been successfully applied in research relating to a variety of conflicts: from Israel-Palestine to the rise of ISIS.

While previous studies have shown de-radicalisation to be extremely difficult, the escalation of radical beliefs into actual violence may still be curtailed with an improved understanding of the neurocognitive underpinnings of the process.

To this end, the brains of 30 radicalised men were scanned while they answered questions pertaining to the defence of sacred and non-sacred values. This sample, recruited from Barcelona’s Pakistani community over a two-year program of intense ethnographic fieldwork, were all self-avowed supporters of the radical Jihadist organisation Lashkar-et-Taiba; previously responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament.

Mumbai attack in 2008

Once inside the brain scanner, each member of the sample group was presented with a set of value-laden issues; some established as sacred to the individual in question (such as the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed or the status of Kashmir), and the rest being non-sacred. All were asked to signify the extent of their willingness to fight and die in defence of each value, while their corresponding brain activity was recorded in real time.

While this initial series focused purely on establishing the neurocognitive operations involved in the processing of sacred vs non- sacred values, a second experiment expanded the paradigm by examining the effects of peer influence on the level of willingness to fight and die, and the corresponding brain activity.

The participants were now presented with the same ‘values survey’ however additional data was added; purporting to show the average willingness to fight and die as stated by the wider Pakistani community. As such, each participant was faced with a (fictitious) group opinion that variously conflicted, matched or exceeded his own propensity to fight and die in defence of each given value.

Again, answers and brain activity were recorded for later analysis.

As expected, participant’s willingness to fight and die over given issues was markedly higher when sacred values were invoked. However, as per the hypothesis, scans showed differences in brain activity depending on whether participants were processing sacred or non-sacred values while formulating their willingness to fight and die.

Specifically, areas of the brain previously established to handle deliberative, cost-benefit decision making, namely the ‘Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (dlPFC), Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG) and Parietal Cortex, showed reduced activity when sacred values were invoked. Answers to sacred values questions were also provided faster.

The cogitation of sacred values therefore appears to diminish the brain’s deliberative faculties while simultaneously promoting a faster response; yielding more rapid decisions with a less basis in conventional calculation and consideration.

The peer influence study, meanwhile, found that the level of willingness to fight and die moderated toward that given by peers when a lower level was attributed to this wider group. Additionally, scans detected associated activity in the aforementioned dlPFC brain area, suggesting that peer influence can stimulate an increase in deliberative decision making that yields a reduced propensity toward violence and self-sacrifice.

These experiments provide a clear, neurocognitive insights into the radicalised mind’s adoption of violent action and the evident limitations of resolution measures rooted in cost-benefit persuasion (economic inducements, custodial penalties or other cost imposition approaches). Scans show that such approaches appeal to areas of the brain that are subdued during sacred value decision making.

While sacred values are known to be resistant to peer influence, the peer influence component of this study indicates that this factor may well help reduce the overall instances of violence in the defence of sacred values. That the brain’s deliberative faculties reassert themselves when peer attitudes are invoked suggests a path toward reduction and mitigation rooted in family, peer and community groups.

Here is a link to the full pulication:

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By Sylvie Shiwei Barbier

Sylvie Shiwei Barbier is an Artist and Co-founder of Life Itself