June 23, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Are Terrorists Radicalized by Their Brains?

When multiple factors are at work, sorting them out is difficult, and inferences about causality can be misleading.

Is there something wrong with the brains of terrorists? Two scientists tried to find out. They engaged in the dangerous activity of talking to radicalized youth in Barcelona and asking if they could scan their brains. The candidates found it somewhat amusing, but consented.

Writing in The Conversation, Nafees Hamid and Clara Pretus describe their experiments in “The neuroscience of terrorism: how we convinced a group of radicals to let us scan their brains.” They understood at the outset that assigning causation to empirical data would be fraught with differing opinions:

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.

The question is, therefore, do brain scans provide a superior basis for understanding causes of radicalization than other methods? Hamid and Pretus did find different patterns of brain activity in some radicals than others. But what does that mean? The results from functional MRI imaging (fMRI) showed some brain regions related to deliberative reasoning when participants were asked questions, or when they played some video games related to conflict.

Dubious Ethics in Science

In some of the experiments, the scientists lied to the participants. Youth in Barcelona of Moroccan origin were told that they were playing a video game against Spanish participants, but not told that the players were “purely virtual.” The scientists manipulated the virtual players to create feelings of social exclusion in the participants, in order to see whether feelings of exclusion contributed to their anger and resentment. That’s not all:

In the second part of the study, while still in the scanner, the participants were shown each value again with their own original rating but this time they could press a button to see the average willingness to fight and die ratings of their peers. What they weren’t told was that these average ratings were an invention and were evenly split between lower, the same, or higher ratings to serve as an experimental manipulation.

The experimenters feel they had a good aim, “to study willingness to engage in violence for cultural and religious values” in order to learn how to counteract radicalization most effectively. Whether it is proper to treat any human being like a lab rat for such aims is a different question.

Dubious Inferences in Science

Whether the brain scans proved anything is also dubious. Look at the brain scans in the article. Where is the terrorist region? Are terrorists born or made? If a brain region becomes more active during an experiment, is that region causing radicalization or reflecting it? Is it a cause or an effect? Hamid and Pretus seem to end up supporting the opinion that environmental factors, not brain regions, are the causative factors in radicalization. They make an ethical judgment in the end:

The process of radicalisation remains a complex system that cannot be reduced to the brain, behaviour, or environment. It exists at the intersection of these elements. 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.

Such an opinion cannot be ethically neutral, however. To see that, consider that radicalized youth already have a strong sense of purpose! Hamid and Pretus make a moral judgment that some other “purpose-driven life,” like finding acceptance working for the family business or engaging in creative business could fulfill a young person’s need for social acceptance and a better purpose than blowing up people. Certainly most of us would agree the former is better than the latter, but it is a moral judgment. The authors also make a moral judgment that an “inclusive society” is helpful to prevent radicalization. But wouldn’t an inclusive society be accepting of terrorists by definition? Making a moral judgment is inescapable.

Hamid and Pretus make a big deal of “sacred values” which they define as “moral values that are non-negotiable and inviolable.” Your sacred values are things you would not trade for material rewards. “Despite the label ‘sacred’, these values don’t have to be religious,” they say. To avoid the Yoda Complex, though, the scientists need to admit that they also have sacred values. They want to stop terrorism, and are unlikely to take material rewards to change that value. Would they submit themselves to brain scans, and let operators lie to them to get them to react?

The Brain Is Not the Soul. The Soul Influences the Brain

None of this discussion denies the interconnection of the physical brain with the internal sense of self. But as neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz wrote in a book, You Are Not Your Brain. In a discussion at Evolution News, Schwartz explains why the mind cannot be reduced to the brain, as materialists are obligated to believe by their own worldview. His own research has shown that those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) know that they are acting irrationally or immorally, and can be convinced to stop their self-destructive behaviors.

Schwartz acknowledges that the brain can reinforce behaviors until they become ingrained habits, including substance abuse and OCD, but the “self” can still wrest control from such habits and purposefully decide to set new goals. For reasons Schwartz and others have observed in patients with OCD, he concludes that we all have a conscience and an “impartial spectator” and a “wise advocate” within that acts as “an inner loving guide” with which we can talk things over. The most habit-prone individual knows whether something is the wrong thing to do or the right thing to do. A ramification of this view is that people are accountable for how they respond to that inner wise advocate.

The brain scan work by Hamid and Pretus adds nothing to the common-sense reasoning by Schwartz. We all know intuitively that we have a self that can choose to obey the inner wise advocate. Indeed, our sense of self is the best thing we know— better than the conclusions of science. Implying that the material brain is somehow conflated with the soul as a causative agent in our behavior is superfluous. If a psychologist told you that “your soul plus gribbleflix makes you act the way you do,” does that add any useful information? Take out the gribbleflix and use the cause that explains the phenomena. As Schwartz explained, the brain can become so habituated to our choices that it can be very difficult to break out of its patterns. Yet we remain responsible, and accountable, for our actions.

The idea that we can control our actions is liberating to a person. Due to our fallen natures, we love to blame others. That’s what Adam did in the garden: he blamed Eve. Eve, in turn, blamed the serpent. When you realize that you have nobody to blame but yourself for your failings, you have hope. There is a God who made you, and to whom you are accountable. You can change from sinful habits by repenting and trusting in the salvation He has provided for forgiveness and healing. Do it today: our Site Map points out the guideposts to reconciliation with your Maker. It’s something we all must do. But getting on right terms with God brings a wealth of other benefits: love, peace, and a purpose in life.

Paul said, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (I Timothy 1:5). And the fruit of walking a life led by the Spirit of God brings benefits nobody would deny are the very best things in life: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

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