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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Munoz Burgos

The neuroscience of violence

The field of neuroscience has advanced significantly; however, the brain and neural connections in it are so complex that there are still many unanswered questions. Daniel Levitin, a psychologist, neuroscientist, writer, musician, and record producer, who wrote one of my favorite books (This is Your Brain on Music) compares MRI technology to a person flashing a light inside a dome-covered football stadium. The dome deflects and distorts light, so if you are outside the stadium (at the dome) looking into the football field and trying to determine where the light is coming from, you will not be 100 percent accurate. This means that although there have been technological advances to study the brain, we still do not have sufficiently accurate tools to study it as we would wish, so we are still operating under many theories and assumptions.

Although there is still much to be explored in this field, scientists have been able to identify brain activity that is associated with certain types of behaviors. Neuroscientists claim that they cannot provide a definite answer as to what makes a person commit a violent crime, join a violent gang, or become radicalized. Instead, they recommend taking a multidisciplinary approach to understand why people engage in violent behaviors.

A multidisciplinary approach focuses on the relationships between neural, cognitive, and social processes of the human brain. This approach is known as social neuroscience and has significantly contributed to explaining complex social behaviors and brain-behavior relationships such as risk-taking behaviors. More broadly, to understand why people engage in or are drawn to violent behaviors, it is important to look at group dynamics, interpersonal processes, micro-sociological processes, and neurobehavioral theories of violent behavior.

With respect to group dynamics, human beings are ultra-social species that need a group for survival. Our long-term survival is dependent on our willingness to share information, resources, and help others. Human beings experience the need to create and develop social bonds. Cognitive, emotional, and motivational faculties have been shaped by the demand of our social interdependence. However, we are also hardwired for in-group favoritisms, setting boundaries, establishing group norms, and showing increased empathy with in-group members compared to outgroup members. We are extremely good at distinguishing “us” vs. “them” for survival, but this also creates prejudice and bias. The sense of kinship can drive individuals to take great risks or sacrifice themselves for their kin. The need to form social bonds can force some individuals with a lack of sense of belonging to create “fictive kin” and sacrifice themselves for this group. This may explain the behaviors of gang members and radicalized youth who commit suicide or violent acts for their groups.

Interpersonal processes are closely related to group dynamics and demonstrate how behaviors can be influenced by social bonds. Experiments have shown that socially connected individuals can dehumanize out-group members and are more likely to endorse or approve harm against the dehumanized others. Members of the same group are also likely to justify violation of norms by members of their group, while condemning the same actions if they are committed by members of an out-group. This has been proven through neurological experiments. Recent work also suggests that dehumanization may enable morally objectionably violent acts when these are motivated by a desire to obtain key benefits. This may explain why violent group members are able to commit horrendous acts of violence when being influenced by each other. In intrapersonal processes, empathy is very important; however, neurological studies show that people show less empathy towards individuals that that belong to different ethnic, political, or social groups.

Micro-sociological processes involve narratives, sacred values, and the quest for significance. As human beings, we construct narratives that give meaning to our lives and who we are. The problem is that under the right psychological circumstances, some narratives can lead to bad ideas. Victimization ideas can lead to justifying violence because individuals may think that society has been unfair to them. When individuals begin associating themselves with people who share their same views, and stop being exposed to other types of narratives, their understanding of the world, as well as their values become their only accepted reality. Here is where extreme views develop and it becomes justifiable for these individuals to hurt members of the out-group, even if they have not done anything directly to them.

Some neurological evidence points to a number of cognitive, emotional, and motivational factors that may reciprocally interact with group and situational factors that enable extremist values and beliefs, as well as violent behaviors. The extent to which emotional and motivational factors become interconnected with extreme beliefs may differentiate those who only have sympathy for an extremist cause from those who become motivated to act on its behalf. Like risk factors at other levels, these risk factors are probably heterogeneous and multifaceted for every individual. For example, individuals who have traits associated with novelty-seeking or impulsivity may be appealed by terrorism’s risks.

Although it is very difficult to develop a universal terrorist profile, there’s research that has identified some molecular, neurobiological, and behavioral predictors of future aggression and violence. Aggressive behavior in children as young as two has been shown to predict future aggression. There are also strong links between genetic markers and aggressive, antisocial behavior. A study of 1.3 million adoptees and non-adoptees found that the former were more likely to commit violent crimes if their biological parents had a history of criminal violence. Also, a study found that children with low monoamine oxidase A (an enzyme) were more likely to develop antisocial behaviors under the wrong environmental factors. However, this was not observed in children who had high levels of monoamine oxidase A. This means that genetic factors can play an important role in determining whether an individual will develop violence-related behaviors.

Some simpler neurological theories state that individuals with larger amygdalae may be more empathetic and not engage in violent acts, while other theories state that what matters is the frontal cortex’s ability to control emotions. This means that if the frontal cortex is not working well, a large amygdala would create more problems because emotions would be more intense and will not be able to be controlled.

Although there are many reasons why a person can engage in violence or become radicalized, it is important to point out that most individuals who join violent groups have normally functioning brains. This is why the processes above are so important to understand, as the radicalization “process” is not the same for everyone and many factors contribute to this phenomenon, including brain and genetic processes. As a result, a multidisciplinary approach to studying the causes of violence is needed.

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