In the mind of a terrorist
Psychopaths have faulty connections between the part of the brain dealing with emotions and that which handles impulses and decision-making, scientists have found.
From the page: “Neuroscience can be a weapon against terrorism, says a leading brain scientist who is investigating the neurology of belief.
Professor Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, says there is no such thing as a brain centre for terrorism.
But she says that understanding the neurology of belief, identity and risk can inform the way countries respond to terrorist threats.
“As yet no one has started looking at the neuroscience of terrorism [but] neuroscience is really in the foothills of this very important question,” she says.
Greenfield says the brain becomes individualised by the way connections between brain cells form, mainly in the first 18 years of life.
Experiences during this time leave a mark on the brain, essentially hardwiring the way we perceive and respond to our world.
Greenfield and colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind, which she directs, are investigating how belief is laid down in the brain.
This goes to the heart of terrorism, she says, which is basically a set of tactics founded on a belief system.
She says belief becomes embedded in the brain either through one single, significant event or through constant repetition, such as prayer or rituals, rather than evidence-based deduction.
Once adopted, belief is very difficult to shake, although the use of cognitive therapy to treat depression shows that it is possible to ‘rewire’ the brain, Greenfield says.
“Yes you can rearrange people’s connections even in maturity so that they see the world in a different way,” she says.
Understanding risk is also a key factor in understanding what goes on in the mind of a terrorist, she says.
Greenfield suggests the high integration of technology in our lives is producing a generation more reckless than previous ones.
She says the instant gratification of technology prioritises experience above the consequences of our experiences, producing an “experientially biased” society.
“If you going to have the techno world driving moment-to-moment experiences over learning and thought, then it would follow that the next generation will be more reckless and prone to risk,” she says.
Associate Professor Robert Heath, a psychologist and risk management consultant at the University of South Australia, says terrorists are both born and made.
He says terrorists have a psychological predisposition to violence and typically score highly on psychotism, neuroticism and sociopathology.
But they also need a ‘trigger point’.
“You need to have the disposition but you also need to have a belief set getting implanted in your head … you also need to have a referent group that’s a very strong influence,” he says.
How do we respond to terrorism?
Greenfield says studying the brain can also shed light on how the general population responds to perceived threats.
“What does it do to us as a society?” she says.
She says studies in lab rats show that the best way to induce neurosis is to engender a sense of perpetual threat without a way of avoiding it.
“One of the hardest things for a human is to be told that you’re in danger and not be allowed a way out or seen any means by which you can take evasive action,” she says.
“So is it actually productive for governments to tell people ‘you’re in a high state of security’ if you’re not allowing a compensatory action.””