Neuropsychological analysis of fundamentalism

As I watched the news about the terror attacks in Paris I was upset, as every normal human being should be. However, there was another emotion in myself: anger. Angry, of course, towards those bastards who did this. But also angry about the fact that many people still do not understand much about human psychology. About how people can become such radical terrorists. WHY? Why is that so important to know? Because in the WHY lies the answer to the solution, to the succesfull fight against terrorism. Because no military fight will ever beat terrorism, not of the sort IS uses.

Below I will try to build my case: we need a lot more knowledge about the neuropsychology of the mind to explain how someone can become such a fundamentalist as to destroy himself, preferably together with a lot of other seemingly innocent (young) people.

The 4 essential ingredients of a normal human mind

The normal human brain has 4 several innate key elements: curiosity, avoiding intense negative emotions, searching for meaning and empathy. This has evolved over the course of evolution because the organism in which our brain is located wants to survive, normally.

Stated in other words: it has an innate basic emotion like 'Seeking' (see Jaak Panksepp's marvellous book 'The archeology of mind') which fuels curiosity (always seeking something new). It has the basic emotions Anger, Sadness, Anxiety, Lust, but also Play (indeed correctly seen as a basic emotion!) and Care. These basic emotions are very fundamental and clearly different emotional pathways/circuits in our brain, existing both in humans and in mammals. The basic emotional circuits like Play and Care fuel empathy. We have so-called mirror neurons to actually resonate or feeling the same things as others, the have the capacity to empathically feel the sorrow or pleasure of other living beings. 

But...although innate we have one thing all other living animals do NOT have in this amount: our ability to symbolize, to give meaning to our experiences, to our surrounding world, to others. Although primates like bonobos, chimpanzees, urang utangs, dolphins, even elephants, also have this capacity to give meaning to their experiences, it is not that sophisticated as our ability. Although there are indeed chimps or dolphins who are intellectually stronger than some humans :).

It is this ability to give meaning to things, to symbolize things, that can drive us crazy, that can turn us into madness, that can make us unrealistic or in more technical terms 'psychotic'. And more importantly: that can destroy empathy. 

What can destroy our empathy?

To experience empathy we need a lot of so-called mirror neurons to grow. We have a lot of them when we are born but they need the right kind of nurture or upbringing to develop them into a fully and optimally working neural network. Empathy is the capacity to feel what others can feel, so in essence it is the capacity to feel all 7 basic emotions. If - somehow - these basic emotional circuits are damaged the optimal capacity for empathy is compromised. That is the reason we all have differences in the amount of empathy we have.

More specifically, especially the Anger circuit can hinder such other emotions as Sadness, Anxiety, Care. These basic emotions are necessary to empathise with other living beings. Anger deletes them, usually temporarily but when it is constantly fueled it can really diminish neural circuits like sadness, anxiety or care. The only basic emotions that can thrive with Anger are Lust, Play and Seeking. Rapists use Anger to get aroused and be able to rape a women, Anger can help someone to score a point during a tennis or other sports match, and Anger can help to persevere in times when endurance is necessary and all hope seems to be lost. 

However, too much of one emotion, no matter which one is not really realistic and can lead to trouble. Too much anger for too long really can destroy neural circuits like sadness or shame (form of anxiety). We know from neuroscience that neural circuits that are not used much anymore, actually can erode: their connections become weaker. I doubt if such essential neural circuits really can disappear completely, but they certainly can become weaker due to interference: another neural circuit can become stronger and therefore interferes more and more with the other circuits. People can train their emotional circuits to become stronger: Anger can be trained to strengthen itself. Just as Sadness can be 'trained' to become stronger in for example a depression.

My underlying assumption here is that especially Anger can temporarily or even permanently resize a neural circuit like Sadness or Care. In nonhuman animals luckily there is some sort of a safety switch: usually animals do not get that enraged so that they will continue a fight till the death of the opponent. Normally, that is not necessary. But sometimes of course, death will happen during a fight. But most ethologists agree on the fact that most animals do not go on and on to kill, just for fun. The only ones who have been observed to do so are primates like chimps and even dolphins. My guess would be that this has a lot to do with their higher cognitive capacities, more specifically their capacity for (abstract) thinking.

My speculation is that WHAT really fuels Anger is INJUSTICE. Injustice is a moral observation, a type of reasoning, a type of giving meaning to something in a special way. Our brain has the innate capacity to give meaning to anything and especially our moral reasoning is extremely important. That has everything to do with empathy. Without empathy we would not have any moral incling or reasoning. We CARE about others who are similar to us, at least are being observed as similar to us. And we can feel the pain of those who resemble us, even more so whenever the experienced resemblance is extreme.That is the reason we feel more pity with panda's, baby sea lions and puppies than with for example fish. 

Experiencing INJUSTICE is a very fundamental and extremely powerful feeling. It is a combination of moral reasoning and the basic emotions Anger and Seeking. Unfortunately, this moral reasoning can be flawed. Because due to our experiences and differences in cognitive capacities and basic emotions we can have differences in our logical reasoning skills. Driven by our emotions like sadness we can become extremely angry and it is long known that intense emotions can hamper our logical reasoning. It results in tunnel vision: only seeing some things, not seeing the whole picture, not considering every other angle you can have on an issue. Your opinion becomes  biased, twisted, or otherwise blurred. It is not realistic anymore. The further away your mindset becomes from reality, the more unrealistic your mind becomes, the more 'psychotic' you can become. Psychotic is a terrible word, because it does not clearly describe what is meant. Unrealistic would be the better term I suppose. And a very persistent unrealistic idea would be a delusion, in more psychiatric language. So if we say someone is delusional, we simply mean that someone is out of touch with reality, quite severely so. 

Being out of touch with reality is a continuum: you can be slightly off or extremely. For example, seeing the pope doing some pole dancing can be counted as delusional, unrealistic, a hallucination. Hallucinations (seeing things which are not there in reality) due to a drug or a special mental state like in schizophrenia, are typically considered being unrealistic in the Western psychiatry. In several other cultures such mind states are seen as 'visions' or 'messages from God'. But to keep it simple: they are indeed unrealistic, not based on any realistic verifiable fact about reality. Typically, only 1 person is having such a hallucination and I for myself does not believe just one person telling me there is an orange snake in front of me while at the same time no one else around me sees that snake.

But more common is the unrealistic feeling of over-confidence. If someone thinks he can break a wooden shelf with just one blow of his right hand (karate), this might be a case of an unrealistic idea. However, it is NOT considered 'delusional' or 'psychotic' because it is not persistent. Especially not when he did try his blow and jumped 3 metres in agony, leaving the shelf untouched. The next footage is sort of borderline because it is not certain the karate 'expert' really understands how unrealistic he thinks his powers are: 

failed karate demonstration: delusional or not?

Such a 'miscalculation' or unrealistic idea about one's powers is quite common, certainly with narcissistic personality disorders or anti-social ones. However, it is only considered delusional or psychotic whenever this idea is NOT changed in light of clear realistic (and verifiable) evidence to the contrary. Given this definition a lot of people are delusional...but that is not really my idea. So let me explain it a bit further.

to be continued


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