This is Your Brain on Terrorism…Any Questions?



Dr. Eric Haseltine is a recognized expert in both neuroscience and counter-terrorism.  He has a great article in Psychology Today about how understanding the way our brains work can lead us to a healthy response to terrorism.  Although he is not writing from a religious perspective, regular readers of Faith on the Couch will recognize how consistent Dr. Haseltine’s approach is with the Theology of the Body, the assertion by Pope St. John Paul the Great that by understanding the way God made our bodies and brains to function, we can discover His plan for healthy relationships and creating a Civilization of Love.

From Psychology Today…

It’s very rare that my backgrounds in Neuroscience and Counter Terrorism  collide, but the Paris terrorist attacks have just  made this happen.

And the atrocities have lead me to a strong opinion about what we should do about ISIS

The bottom line is that both Neuroscience and lessons from Counter Terrorism experience argue that military force, by itself is, not going to solve the problem. Neither will efforts to “de-radicalize” Islamic teenagers. Ditto for diplomacy, support to foreign governments  that  motivate them to fight ISIS harder, or efforts to win over “hearts and minds” of Sunni populations  that support ISIS.

We’ve  tried these approaches for decades, and the best you can say is that they’ve only partly succeeded.

The reason for the mixed success is that these approaches focus primarily on “them” (terrorists) and very little on  “us” (victims or potential victims of terrorists).

Here’s what I mean.

One of ISIS’s objectives in the Paris attacks was to polarize non-Muslims  against Muslims.  This increased anger could produce two things ISIS covets:  Western military responses  in Muslim countries that  deepen Islam’s resentment of the West, and increased  bias against Muslims, which, in turn, increases alienation of Islamic youth in Western countries.

Resentful populations in Muslim countries are more likely to support ISIS and so are disaffected Islamic youths in the West.

So… how we react to the events in Paris will play a big role in how often such incidents are repeated.

And , unfortunately, the latest Neuroscience suggests that our response will be dangerously imbalanced.

Bear with me while I explain.

Dr. Gregory Berns at Emory University has shown that the part of our brains that respond to “utility” (cost vs. benefit) are entirely different from the parts involved in “sacred values” (absolute right vs. wrong). And it’s because these two parts are unconnected that I’m worried.

For instance, when faced with decisions like “how much money would it take to get you stop drinking Coke,”  fMRI scans showed that  test subject’s  right Inferior Parietal neocortex activated. But when asked whether money could make them kill an innocent person, other areas, such as the Tempororparietal Junction and amygdala lit up.

In other words, no amount of cost/benefit analysis will change the strong responses in our brain to fundamental beliefs, like” terrorists are evil and should be killed.”

So, in responding to terrorism, our “sacred value” brains will tend to ignore cost vs benefit–  such as how much American military action will raise our taxes. Or how many more American soldiers  and  civilians will die with escalated military operations. Or– most important–will added military action really work?

Worse, the attacks are likely to make our sacred beliefs about Muslim  terrorists—and by association all Muslims—even more sacred. This is bound to affect some of our conscious and unconscious attitudes towards Muslims.

And Muslims in the West are bound to feel it.

And some of them will become more radicalized. If that happen, ISIS wins.

Not just once, with military attacks on Muslim countries that increase ISIS support

Not just twice with increased alienation of Muslims in the West.

But  three times with attitudes we pass on to our children.  READ THE REST.