Do We Need A Neuroscience of Terrorism?

By Neuroskeptic | November 25, 2015 2:46 pm


In the Boston Herald, we read that

Little is currently known about the neurological pathways of terrorism – the inner workings of a brain that can justify random violence to promote an abstract, extreme belief… there has been no neuroimaging done to examine terrorist brain activity at play.

This lack of neuroscientific knowledge is a problem, we’re told, because

“[terrorism is] like with cancer: The more you know about it, the more you start to understand the process of it, the earlier you can attack it and prevent it,” said Shuki Cohen, associate director of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Center on Terrorism

The overall message seems to be: extremism is a kind of brain disorder; we don’t know the causes, or how to cure it, but neuroscience does offer some insights:

One concrete piece of knowledge, [Kent Kiehl, professor of psychology, neuroscience and law at University of New Mexico and author of The Psychopath Whisperer] said, is that many people who engage in terrorist activity are young, and that the adolescent brain relies heavily on the amygdala – responsible for emotions – and less on the prefrontal cortex – the judgment and decision-making center.

Do we really need to study terrorists’ brains in order to understand their actions? Would a neuroscience of terrorism help us to prevent atrocities?

To answer this question we need to distinguish between theoretical and practical approaches to this issue.

I’m skeptical that brains scans could offer any theoretical insights into terrorism.

Neuroscience can answer questions about the brain. But when it comes to terrorism, what we are interested in is cognition and behavior. We want to understand how terrorists think and why they act the way they do. These are not questions about the brain, except in a trivial sense that all thought and behavior has a neural correlate.

When we say “I want to understand terrorism” what I think we mean is “I want to understand what makes terrorists different from everyone else”. But the answer to that question probably doesn’t lie in brain scan images. Even if we found neural activity blobs in particular brain areas that predict terrorist attitudes, I don’t think we could interpret them in everyday terms. Unless you’re a neuroscientist whose job is to find those blobs, I don’t see that finding them would help you.

If we understood the normal (non-terrorist) function of the brain in great detail – which we currently don’t – then maybe we could interpret terrorists’ brains. Until then, I suspect that the best way to understand this behavior is to listen to terrorists and observe them and try to comprehend them in the same way we comprehend everyone else. Or to put it another way, I don’t think cancer is the appropriate metaphor for a human activity.


On a practical level, I’m not convinced that neuroscience offers any immediate practical benefits to counter-terrorism, although it’s not impossible.

Neuroscience might be able to help. It’s within the realm of possibility that we could take a suspected bomb-maker, and see if their brain responds to (say) the smell of freshly-synthesized explosives. Innocent people would probably not recognize that smell. That would be a high-tech ‘guilty knowledge test‘, which might be useful in some investigations, but the method is not really specific to terrorism.

Beyond this, it could be possible, hypothetically, to measure something like pro-terror attitudes in the brain. We could show people a picture of (say) Osama Bin Laden and see if there is a “positive” brain response. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried this, and I doubt it would work. The closest analogy in existing science is the claim that fMRI can detect pedophilia: by showing people images of naked adults and naked children, you can, supposedly, detect a sexual attraction response to the children in pedophiles. Maybe something similar could be contrived to detect attraction to an ideology or belief in a cause.

But even if you found a way to do this, the same practical (and ethical) issues that arise with pedophilia ‘detection’ would arise. For instance, what do we do about someone whose brain “lights up” to the taboo stimuli (child, or pro-terror), but who denies feeling any attraction? What about someone who acknowledges a taboo desire, but who has never acted upon it and who says they never will? Neuroscience might offer a source of information, but we’d still have to make sense of that data.

  • Defenestrator

    I can’t help but feel disappointed in the academics quoted in that article. When the IRA was bombing London, one response would have been to look for biological correlates of extremist beliefs among Northern Irish. The intelligent response was (of course after arresting people who use violence) to look for legitimate grievances that underlay the extremist violence, and address any such grievances. No excuse for violence, and no excuse for pretending it’s just random. Let’s use our own brains instead of pontificating about what’s in theirs.

    • PipiMoka

      No. No, no, no, that wouldn’t work at all. Because using our brains, unpacking all this “terrorism” stuff, would mean acknowledging a bunch of inconvenient truths we just aren’t ready to deal with. How about we just co-opt some good science and/or fabricate some bad science to justify escalating our commitment to our moronic convictions (“so, how can we be more proactive about getting these bastards??”)? That’s OUR way.

  • Dr. Turi

    The answer is in the human UCI (Google dr.turi UCI) here but the scientific community is not listening…Watch this video and share Pls

  • דור חכמון

    could be the lack orand surplass
    of certain biochemic complexes in the currents of the electro biofeedback in the brain, but
    remember it’s not a closed system it’s in open systen due to fact that it’s – those complexes – ability orand inability to interacts and converge themselves with objects in the brain andor body

  • Ethan Black

    Raymond Tallis’s book delves into this subject in great detail. The answer is just flat out “no”, and I don’t see why, even if there are “correlates” of thoughts and behaviors in the brain, there would necessarily be any difference between the brain of a terrorist or any other disaffected or alienated individual, or anyone else willing to die for a cause. What this suggests is that terrorism is purely internal, the result of just a miswiring in the brain, rather than something driven by inhospitable social conditions. It’s part of our society’s increasing refusal to allow for any sociological imagination, which results in viewing ourselves as isolated atoms rather than human beings caught in a social milieu.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Right. There may be neural correlates of personality traits that incline an Iraqi Sunni to join Isis (say). But in another time and place (another society), those same personality traits might incline someone towards something quite different.

    • Matthew B

      Science begs to differ. There are many scientific studies that how changes in the anterior cingulate gyrus and amygldala based on one’s political beliefs, so it would be hard to see why religious beliefs would be any different. The portions of the brain are plastic *when a person is young* and so the brain structure formed when a person was indoctrinated into a certain belief system would most likely persist.

      • Mohamed Abdou-Salami

        It is time to come out of this proud materialistic scientism that seeks to explain everything in terms of chemical reactions. Let us accept that like any other theory, this too has its range of validity. Let us respect the extraordinary achievement of science and at the same time remember that its principles and methods were dictated by its initial areas of inquiry, namely the physical world.
        Luckily we have new methods, such as Systems thinking, that are helping us to understand complex phenomena.

        • Inner Boyka

          Your problem is that I don’t think you want to understand science. You’re right, science has it’s domain of validity and the things that I’ve cited are within that domain. You don’t want to explain things in terms of chemical reactions but the reality is that all behavior is a consequence of biochemistry. You’re simply unaware of the fact that the only way we have to describe the material world is by science. Any action has a physical basis.
          Your real problem is that you won’t even read the articles. You have a closed mind and all you’re doing is Raising objections because you don’t want to see the truth. It’s really sad that I feel sorry for you

  • John C

    Every society has it’s share of violent individuals, some sanctioned by the state and some not. Usually the people perpetrating the violence do so as a necessary evil in service their selfish end or defense of their society. Terrorists on the other hand, particularly ISIS, relish their barbarity as an art form. Rembrandts of savagery. That’s what sets them apart.

    • OWilson

      There’s also the type who’s first reaction is to rationalize it, excuse it even condone it. “Lack of economic opportunity”, anyone? :)

      But the fact is they are killing, looting, burning in your own cities. The police are told to stand down and “let them blow off a little steam”.

      In another time and another place looters would be shot on sight!

      Their mayors and police chiefs replaced.

      Your problems are not in the Middle East.

  • OWilson

    Ah, the human condition.

    One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

    As long as there is progressive liberal moral equivalency between conservatives and liberals. capitalists and communists, Islam and Christianity, it will continue.

    There was a time of Western greatness and caring, when we decided we were right and they were wrong, and in that short period of time the condition of all humans were elevated.

    Not anymore. They don’t teach right and wrong, good and evil, because everything is relative.

    Hey, don’t complain about Muslim terrorists in the here and now, because Christian terrorist did x or y 800 years ago, says this President.

    You have created this world, you voted for it, enjoy it.

    I did what I could, but now it’s your turn.

  • Taylor

    This. We may be this much closer to airports w/ brain scanners should some vague research emerge claiming to identify the neural correlates of terrorists. It would provide an easy way to justify holding people for questioning.

    Also, I’ve heard of pedophiles who may be aroused by children, but never act on it. Will those who are merely tempted by, or even sympathetic to, certain extremist causes be found guilty by thoughts/ brain signatures alone?

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  • Stephen Dolle

    Actually there is quite a bit of neuroscience in support of how individuals, groups of people eg. gangs, terrorists, and packs of domestic animals turn to do BAD things. This group behavior is rooted in what is termed, “brain wave entrainment,” which describes our affinity to connect, share, and emulate others.

    Last Dec. 2014, I wrote a blog on “drums” and drumming is used to deter and alter the recruiting of gang members in cities. Then I followed this up with almost a [revelation] on how we influence one another, and how change occurs. My intent was to explain it in terms of science. But in the process, I ended up bringing “God’s role” into my explanation as it appears out capacity for CHANGE was designed into our making. Here’s the short link:

  • Overburdened_Planet

    …extremism is a kind of brain disorder; we don’t know the causes, or how to cure it…

    Young brains are more willing to take risks, being more focused on the reward, or by feeling immortal.

    Then there’s religious vs. critical thinking, motivated by ideology vs. facts, or a willingness to consider alternate points of view.

    And conservative brains have regions responsible for fear and disgust that are larger than liberals (fear of the ‘other’: minorities, women, gays).

    Wiki has a page on brain fingerprinting, with successes, and criticisms; for example, police show a number of murder weapons to a suspect, and if their brain lights up the P300 area it means they were aware of the weapon used, except they might have been at the scene of the crime but not have committed the murder.

    So if neuroscience might some day be able to predetermine terrorist inclinations, how will those findings be legislated?

    And will precrime become a reality, similar to the book/movie “Minority Report”?

    • OWilson

      No, because one of the answers to crime will always be profiling, which is abhorrent to liberals.
      And, in case you are thinking of writing your thesis on “conservative fear of gays, women and minorities”, I suggest you have a lot more research to do.
      (Or growing up) :)

      • Overburdened_Planet

        So then how would you explain conservatives’ negative reaction to gays, women, and minorities?

        Check yourself.

        • OWilson

          Don’t confuse a negative reaction to progressives and socialists with your flawed assumptions.

          We have a far more diverse bunch of candidates for President than your two aging white folks :)

          • Overburdened_Planet

            Don’t confuse reality with your continuing delusions, denials, and deflections.

            Pay full attention.

            We’re done.

            You are to never engage me here, or on any forum, ever.

            This is your only and final warning.

            Do not respond, OWilson.

          • Neuroskeptic

            I can’t see what this has to do with neuroscience. Neither of you should respond.

          • OWilson

            He sounds like he is posting from North Korea.

            I must have upset Our Comrade Dear Leader :)

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  • Ramesh

    Taking revenge and thinking about it , blind faith etc all are psychological diseases can be checked and treated terrorist must having these attribute.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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