Brain Scans Of Terrorist Sympathizers Show The Neuroscience Of Extremism

November 15, 2015: Crowds light candles in front of the theater Le Bataclan in tribute to victims of the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. Frederic Legrand/Shutterstock

What goes on in the mind of a terrorist? A remarkable new study has carried out brain scans on sympathizers of a terrorist group to find out.

Reporting in the journal Royal Society Open Science, an international team of researchers managed to convince a group of young men with extremist views to undergo an fMRI scan and answer questions about their values.

The men were found to have lower levels of activity in brain areas related to cognitive control and reasoning when asked about their sacred values – abstract ideals, such as god or nation – and their willingness to fight for their beliefs.

In other words, their mindset on these issues was defined by reduced rational thought, as well as a reduced ability to weigh up the costs and consequences of their actions. However, this was not the case when they were quizzed about more neutral "non-sacred" values.

After conducting a large survey of young men of Pakistani origin living in Barcelona, the research team weeded out 30 participants who openly said they would commit violence against civilians in the name of jihadism. All of these participants also expressed support for Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the world’s most active Islamist militant organizations that has known links to the former Taliban government in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda.

Remarkably, the men agreed to fully cooperate with the research. Under the gaze of an fMRI machine, the men were asked about their sacred and non-sacred values, as well as their willingness to fight and die for these values. The same experiment was then carried out on a group of college students in the US and the differences in brain activity were compared.

As mentioned, the discussions about sacred values with the radicalized group sparked less cognitive control and reasoning than the non-radicalized group. However, most crucially, the researchers found that the men were more likely to soften their views and were less willing to die for their cause if they discovered that their friends and peers disagreed with their views. This is despite the fact that many of the participants appeared to be outraged that their peers were not as willing to engage in violence as they were. This suggests that there is a way to help save individuals from the influence of extremist political groups, whether its radical Islamist organizations or far-right hate groups.

“Our experiments indicate that creating inclusive societies that offer pathways to purpose and a sense of belonging to all its citizens has to be a priority in the fight against political violence,” two of the researchers, Nafees Hamid, PhD candidate at the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London and Clara Pretus, Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychiatry and Legal Medicine at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, conclude in an article for The Conversation.

"Simplistic explanations that call people 'crazy', blame a whole religion or ethnicity, or cast local communities as the villains only obscure practical solutions and provide a recruitment boost to terrorist groups. An inclusive society with pathways to purpose must be an aim for policies that seek to counter violent extremism," they add.

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