Inside extremists’ brains

Maria Isabel Garcia
Studies suggest that just as there is no one simple cause to political, religious, or social radicalization, there is also no one strong hand punitive measure to solve radicalization

When we judge extremists, we consider them as belonging to a league of their own in terms of their single-minded preservation and promotion of the values they consider “sacred.” These sacred values are those that they consider as inviolable beliefs that are not only religious but political, social, and even individual. These values are the ones they will pursue and defend at all costs, including the ultimate one, which is dying for it, and the converse, killing for it.

This thinking is not the norm because if it were, humans would have all died long before the modern times. So if this is not the norm, then extremists must belong to a tribe so different from ours in every way that there is no other way but to also do the extreme – punish them or banish them from our communities swiftly and unconditionally. But would getting rid of extremists that way really make extremism as a reality go away?

In one study, scientists looked at the brains in action of those who expressed their seething passions about their “sacred” values. Surprisingly, they really found subjects who were willing to have their brains scanned. When they did, the scientists saw increased activity in that part of the brain that is associated in previous studies with subjective processing – those we hold “sacred” whether they be religious beliefs or any other political or social passion. We see this all the time in any in-group dynamics in religion and politics that require unconditional loyalty. These are people who are not willing to compromise at any cost. They think they are the only ones who are not just right but completely right. In the subjects of this study, their left inferior frontal gyrus were “ablaze” when they were asked to think about the “sacred” values they held most dear compared to when they thought about “non-sacred” values. 

But the more important secret that has been laid bare by the study was how one’s brain could be radicalized. The scientists also had subjects who held deep values but not the kind that were uncompromising. They subjected them to a process that would make them feel isolated. What did it take for “non-sacred” values to take up that much passion in the left inferior frontal gyrus that it would cause it to be activated as much as it has been by “sacred” values? In the study, they found that “social exclusion” could do this. The feeling of being isolated and not being given a voice could cause someone to cross that crucial line between being a believer and an extremist, with the latter willing to die for that “non-sacred” value. Radical groups “fill” that vacuum that social isolation creates for these individuals.

This should send chills through all of us – that the social exclusions we practice in our daily social and political transactions every day, those that define who is “us” and who is “them,” could be flipping over once-benign grudges held by individuals to violent radicalism. 

Another related study revealed that while there was increased activity in the inferior frontal gyrus of extremists who expressed willingness to die for their values, there was a decrease in the activity in the brain region largely associated with deliberate reasoning (largely the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). This means that impassioned levels of belief mute the ability or willingness to reason out of their passions so they could stand the scrutiny of day.

This kind of silencing is also what happens when we are overcome with a deep desire for something. The tragic difference is that for extremists, the desired goal is the preservation or the promotion of a value that one is willing to die or kill for. It is also exactly the time that reasoning should wield its power, but alas, it is mute when we are impassioned with “sacred” values.

But just as social exclusion was shown to convert “non-sacred” values into ones that could ignite extreme violence, the latter study showed where we could have reason to hope. In that study, when the extremists listened to peers who have reconsidered and recalibrated their willingness to die at all costs, the extremists still expressed supreme adherence to “sacred” values but their brains showed otherwise. In fact, their brains began to show increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which shows that their brain was coming out of its muted reasoning and the reasoning region was starting to get animated. This means that listening to others who share their experiences and struggles can soften their view and willingness to die or kill for their “sacred” values. 

Both studies suggest that just as there is no one simple cause to political, religious, or social radicalization, there is also no one strong hand punitive measure to solve radicalization. Measures that will further exclude groups socially will always create holes that radical violent groups will fill with their own promises of rescue. But we can try many ways to reach out to our fellow humans in the various “tribes” we carved for ourselves and make room for our differences before we all flip into that uncompromising lethal state where you think that only your “sacred” value should live, and if it can’t, that none should. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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