THE BRAIN #6
DO I NEED YOU?
What does your brain need to function normally? Beyond the nutrients from the food you eat, beyond the oxygen you breathe, beyond the water you drink, there's something else, something equally as important: it needs other people. Normal brain function depends on the social web around us. Our neurons require other people's neurons to thrive and survive.
Half of us is other people
Over seven billion human brains traffic around the planet today. Although we typically feel independent, each of our brains operates in a rich web of interaction with one another - so much so that we can plausibly look at the accomplishments of our species as the deeds of a single, shifting mega-organism.
Brains have traditionally been studied in isolation, but that approach overlooks the fact that an enormous amount of brain circuitry has to do with other brains. We are deeply social creatures. From our families, friends, co-workers, and business partners, our societies are built on layers of complex social interactions. All around us we see relationships forming and breaking, familial bonds, obsessive social networking, and the compulsive building of alliances.
All of this social glue is generated by specific circuitry in the brain: sprawling networks that monitor other people, communicate with them, feel their pain, judge their intentions, and read their emotions. Our social skills are deeply rooted in our neural circuitry - and understanding this circuitry is the basis of a young field of study called social neuroscience.
Take a moment to consider how different the following items are: bunnies, trains, monsters, airplanes, and children's toys. As different as they are, these can all be the main characters in popular animated films, and we have no difficulty in assigning intentions to them. A viewers brain needs very few hints to take on the assumption that these characters are like us, and therefore we can laugh and cry over their escapades.
This penchant to assign intention to non-human characters was highlighted in a short film made in 1944 by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. Two simple shapes - a triangle and circle - come together and spin around one another. After a moment, a larger triangle comes lurking into the scene. It bumps up against and pushes the smaller triangle. The circle slowly sneaks back into a rectangular structure and closes it behind; meanwhile, the large triangle chases the smaller triangle away. The large triangle then comes to the door of the structure, menacingly. The triangle pries the door open and comes in after the circle, who frenetically (and unsuccessfully) looks for other ways to escape. Just when the situation looks its darkest, the little triangle returns. He pulls open the door and the circle dashes out to meet him. Together they shut the door behind them, trapping the large triangle inside. Penned in, the large triangle smashes against the walls of the structure. Outside, the little triangle and circle spin around one another.
When people watched this short film and were asked to describe what they saw, you might expect that they described simple shapes moving around. After all, it's just a circle and two triangles changing coordinates.
But that's not what the viewers reported. They described a love story, a fight, a chase, a victory. Heider and Simmel used this animation to demonstrate how readily we perceive social intention all around us. Moving shapes hit our eyes, but we see meaning and motives and emotion, all in the form of a social narrative. We can't help but impose stories. From time immemorial, people have watched the flights of birds, the movement of stars, the swaying of trees, and invented stories about them, interpreting them as having intention.
This kind of storytelling is not just a quirk; it's an important clue into brain circuitry. It unmasks the degree to which our brains are primed for social interaction. After all, our survival depends on quick assessments of who is friend and who is foe. We navigate the social world by judging other peoples intentions. Is she trying to be helpful? Do I need to worry about him? Are they looking out for my best interests?
Our brains make social judgments constantly. But do we learn this skill from life experience, or are we born with it? To find out, one can investigate whether babies have it. Reproducing an experiment from psychologists Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, and Paul Bloom at Yale University, I invited babies, one at a time, to a puppet show.
These babies are less than a year old, just beginning to explore the world around them. They're all short on life experience. They're positioned on their mothers' laps to watch the show. When the curtain parts, a duck struggles to open a box with toys in it. The duck grasps at the lid but just can't get a good grip on it. Two bears, wearing two different-colored shirts, watch.
After a few moments, one of the bears helps the duck, working with him to grip the side of the box and pry the lid open. They hug momentarily, and then the lid closes again.
Now the duck tries to get the lid open again. The other bear, watching, throws his weight onto the lid, preventing the duck from succeeding.
[Even infants judge the intentions of others, as can be demonstrated by a puppet show]
That's the whole show. In a short, wordless plot, one bear has been helpful to the duck, and the other bear has been mean.
When the curtain falls, and then reopens, I take both bears and carry them over to the watching baby. I hold them up, indicating to the child to choose one of them to play with. Remarkably, as was found by the Yale researchers, almost all the babies choose the bear that was kind. These babies can't walk or talk, but they already have the tools to make judgments about others.
[THIS IS QUITE REMARKABLE AS IT DISPROVES THE THEOLOGY THAT WE ARE BORN WITH AN EVIL HEART. PEOPLE OFTEN QUOTE JEREMIAH 17:9 “THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS AND DESPERATELY WICKED….” WHAT THEY MISS IS THE THAT WORD “IS” IS IN ITALICS, WHICH MEANS IT IS NOT IN THE ORIGINAL HEBREW. HOW IT SHOULD READ IS: “THE HEART CAN BE DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS AND DESPERATELY WICKED….” AS RESEARCHERS HAVE SEEN, A BABY’S HEART IS ACTUALLY VERY NEUTRAL, EVEN LEANING TOWARDS DISCERNING “GOOD” AND WANTING THAT - Keith Hunt]
[Given a choice, infants will choose the kinder bear]
It's often assumed that trustworthiness is something we learn to assess, based on years of experience in the world. But simple experiments like these demonstrate that, even as babies, we come equipped with social antennae for feeling our way through the world. The brain comes with inborn instincts to detect who's trustworthy, and who isn't.
[ANOTHER SCRIPTURE THAT NEEDS TO BE MARKED IN YOUR BIBLE IS DEUTERONOMY 1:39 “…..AND YOUR CHILDREN, WHICH IN THAT DAY HAD NO KNOWLEDGE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL….” CHILDREN ARE NOT BORN WITH AN EVIL HEART. AS A CHILD IN A LITTLE VILLAGE IN SOUTH WALES, I SAW NO EVIL, HEARD NO EVIL. I WAS 7 YEARS OLD WHEN MY PARENTS SENT ME TO A CHURCH OF ENGLAND SCHOOL, AND WAS INTRODUCED TO THE BIBLE, AND ACCEPTED RIGHT AWAY THERE WAS A GOD AND THIS WAS HIS WORD TO US. ALL THE WAY UP TO AGE 7 I HAD NO KNOWLEDGE OF GOOD AND EVIL, I HAD NOT SEEN OR HEARD ANYTHING THAT WAS EVIL. IT ALL CAME AFTER THAT AGE AND LEARNING IN THE BIBLE WHAT WAS GOOD AND WHAT WAS EVIL AS GOD DEFINES IT - Keith Hunt]
The subtle signals around us
As we grow, our social challenges become more subtle and complex. Beyond words and actions, we have to interpret inflection, facial expressions, body language. While we are consciously concentrating on what we are discussing, our brain machinery is busy processing
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder which affects 1% of the population. Although it's established that both genetic and environmental causes underpin its development, the number of individuals diagnosed with autism has been on the rise in recent years, with little to no evidence explaining this increase. In people not affected by autism, many regions of the brain are involved in searching for social cues about the feelings and thoughts of others. In autism, this brain activity is not seen as strongly - and this is paralleled by diminished social skills.
complex information. The operations are so instinctive that they're essentially invisible.
Often, the best way to appreciate something is to see what the world looks like when it's missing. For a man named John Robison, the normal activity of the social brain was something he was simply unaware of as he grew up. He was bullied and rejected by other children but found a love of machines. As he describes it, he could spend time with a tractor and it wouldn't tease him. "I guess I learned how to make friends with the machines before I made friends with other people," he says.
In time, John's affinity for technology took him to places his bullies could only dream of. By twenty-one, he was a roadie for the band KISS. However, even while surrounded by legendary rock and roll excess, his outlook remained different from others. When people would ask him about the different musicians and what they were like, John would respond by explaining how they had played Sun Coliseum with seven base amps chained together. He would explain that there were 2,200 watts in the bass system, and could enumerate the amplifiers and what the crossover frequencies were. But he couldn't tell you a thing about the musicians who sang through them. He lived in a world of technology and equipment. It wasn't until he was forty that John was diagnosed with Asperger's, a form of autism.
Then something happened that transformed John's life. In 2008 he was invited to take part in an experiment at Harvard Medical School. A team led by Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone was using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to assess how activity in one area of the brain affected activity in another area. TMS emits a strong magnetic pulse next to the head, which in turn induces a small electric current in the brain, temporarily disrupting local brain activity. The experiment was meant to help the researchers gain greater knowledge about the autistic brain. The team used TMS to target different regions of John's brain involved in higher-order cognitive function. At first, John reported the stimulation had no effect. But in one session, the researchers applied TMS to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an evolutionarily recent part of the brain involved in flexible thinking and abstraction. John reported that he somehow became different.
John called up Dr. Pascual-Leone to let him know that the effects of the stimulation seemed to have "unlocked" something in him. The effects lasted beyond the experiment itself, John reported. For John it had opened up a whole new window on to the social world. He simply didn't realize that there were messages emanating from the facial expressions of other people - but after the experiment, he was now aware of those messages. To John, his experience of the world was now changed. Pascual-Leone was skeptical. He figured if the effects were real they wouldn't last, given that the effects of TMS typically persist only a few minutes to hours. Now, although Pascual-Leone does not fully understand what happened, he allows that the stimulation seems to have fundamentally changed John.
In the social realm, John went from experiencing black and white to full color. He now sees a communication channel that he was never able to detect before. John's story isn't simply about hope for new treatment techniques for autism spectrum disorder. It reveals the importance of the unconscious machinery running under the hood, every moment of our waking lives, devoted to social connection - brain circuitry that continuously decodes the emotions of others based on subtle facial, auditory, and other sensory cues.
"I knew that people could display signs of crazed anger," he says. "But if you asked about more subtle expressions - like, I think you're sweet or I wonder what you're hiding or I'd really like to do that or I wish you'd do this -I had no idea about things like that."
Every moment of our lives, our brain circuitry decodes the emotions of others based on extremely subtle facial cues. To better understand how we read faces so rapidly and automatically, I invited a group of people to my lab. We placed two electrodes on their faces - one on the forehead and one on the cheek - to measure small changes in their expressions. Then we had them look at photographs of faces.
[Subtle movements of facial muscles can be measured with an electromyogram (EMG)]
When participants looked at a photo that showed, say, a smile, or a frown, we were able to measure short periods of electrical activity that indicated their own facial muscles were moving, often very subtly. This is because of something called mirroring: they were automatically using their own facial muscles to copy the expressions they were seeing. A smile was reflected by a smile, even if the movement of their muscles was too slight to be visually obvious. Without meaning to, people ape one another.
This mirroring sheds light on a strange fact: couples who are married for a long time begin to resemble each other, and the longer they've been married, the stronger the effect. Research suggests this is not simply because they adopt the same clothes or hairstyles, but because they've been mirroring each other's faces for so many years that their patterns of wrinkles start to look the same.
Why do we mirror? Does it serve a purpose?
To find out, I invited a second group of people to the lab - similar to the first group, except for one thing: this new group of people had been exposed to the most lethal toxin on the planet. If you were to ingest even a few drops of this neurotoxin, your brain could no longer command your muscles to contract, and you would die from paralysis (specifically, your diaphragm would no longer be able to move, and you would suffocate). Given these facts, it seems unlikely that people would pay to have this injected into themselves. But they do. This is the Botulinum toxin, derived from a bacterium, and it's commonly marketed under the brand name Botox. When injected into facial muscles, it paralyzes them and thereby reduces wrinkling.
However, beyond the cosmetic benefit, there's a less known side effect of Botox. We showed Botox users the same set of photos. Their facial muscles showed less mirroring on our electromyogram. No surprise there - their muscles have been purposely weakened. The surprise was something else, originally reported in 2011 by David Neal and Tanya Chartrand. Similar to their original experiment, I asked participants from both groups (Botox and non-Botox) to look at expressive faces and to choose which of four words best described the emotion shown.
In the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test (Baron-Cohen et al, 2001), participants are shown thirty-six photographs of facial expressions, each accompanied by four words.
On average, those with Botox were worse at identifying the emotions in the pictures correctly. Why? One hypothesis suggests that the lack of feedback from their facial muscles impaired their ability to read other people. We all know that the less mobile faces of Botox users can make it hard to tell what they're feeling; the surprise is that those same frozen muscles can make it hard for them to read others.
Here's a way to think about this result: my facial muscles reflect what I'm feeling, and your neural machinery takes advantage of that. When you're trying to understand what I'm feeling, you try on my facial expression. You don't mean to do it - it happens rapidly and unconsciously - but that automatic mirroring of my expression gives you a rapid estimate of what I'm likely to be feeling. This is a powerful trick for your brain to gain a better understanding of me and make better predictions about what I'll do. As it turns out, it's just one trick of many.
The joys and sorrows of empathy
We go to the movies to escape into worlds of love and heartbreak and adventure and fear. But the heroes and villains are just actors projected in two dimensions on a screen - so why should we care at all about what happens to those fleeting phantasms? Why do movies make us weep, laugh, gasp?
To understand why you care about the actors, let's begin with what happens in your brain when you are in pain. Imagine that someone stabs your hand with a syringe needle. There's no single place in the brain where that pain is processed. Instead, the event activates several different areas of the brain, all operating in concert. This network is summarized as the pain matrix.
Here's the surprising part: the pain matrix is crucial to how we connect with others. If you watch somebody else get stabbed, most of your pain matrix becomes activated. Not those areas that tell you you've actually been touched, but instead those parts involved in the emotional experience of pain. In other words, watching someone else in pain and being in pain use the same neural machinery. This is the basis of empathy.
The pain matrix is the name given to a set of areas that become active when you are in pain. Most of these areas also become active when you watch someone else in pain.
To empathize with another person is to literally feel their pain. You run a compelling simulation of what it would be like if you were in that situation. Our capacity for this is why stories - like movies and novels - are so absorbing and so pervasive across human culture. Whether it's about total strangers or made-up characters, you experience their agony and their ecstasy. You fluidly become them, live their lives, and stand in their vantage points. When you see another person suffer, you can try to tell yourself that it's their issue, not yours - but neurons deep in your brain can't tell the difference.
This built-in facility to feel another person's pain is part of what makes us so good at stepping out of our shoes and into their shoes, neurally speaking. But why do we have this facility in the first place? From an evolutionary point of view, empathy is a useful skill: by gaining a better grasp of what someone is feeling, it gives a better prediction about what they'll do next.
However, the accuracy of empathy is limited, and in many cases we simply project ourselves onto others. Take as an example Susan Smith, a mother in South Carolina who in 1994 kindled the empathy of a nation when she reported to the police that she had been carjacked by a man who drove away with her sons still in the car. For nine days, she pled on national television for the rescue and return of her boys. Strangers around the nation offered help and support. Eventually, Susan Smith confessed to the murder of her own children. Everyone had fallen for her story of the carjacking, because her real act was so outside the realm of normal predictions. Although the details of her case are all reasonably obvious in retrospect, they were difficult to see at the time - because we typically interpret other people from the vantage point of who we are and what we're capable of.
We can't help but simulate others, connect with others, care about others, because we're hardwired to be social creatures. That raises a question. Are our brains dependent on social interaction? What would happen if the brain were starved of human contact?
In 2009, peace activist Sarah Shourd and her two companions were hiking in the mountains of Northern Iraq - an area that was, at that time, peaceful. They followed recommendations from locals to see the Ahmed Awa waterfall. Unfortunately, this waterfall was located at the Iraqi border with Iran. They were arrested by Iranian border guards on suspicion of being American spies. The two men were put in the same cell, but Sarah was separated from them in solitary confinement. With the exception of two thirty-minute periods each day, she spent the next 410 days in an isolated cell.
On July 31st 2009, Americans Joshua Fattal, Sarah Shourd, and Shane Bauer were imprisoned by Iranian officials after hiking to a waterfall near the Iraq-Iran border.
In Sarah's words:
In the early weeks and months of solitary confinement you're reduced to an animal-like state. I mean, you are an animal in a cage, and the majority of your hours are spent pacing. And the animal-like state eventually transforms into a more plant-like state: your mind starts to slow down and your thoughts become repetitive. Your brain turns on itself and becomes the source of your worst pain and your worst torture. I'd relive every moment of my life, and eventually you run out of memories. You've told them all to yourself so many times. And it doesn't take that long.
Sarah’s social deprivation caused deep psychological pain: without interaction, a brain suffers. Solitary confinement is illegal in many jurisdictions, precisely because observers have long recognized the damage caused by stripping away one of the most vital aspects of a human life: interaction with others. Starved of contact with the world, Sarah rapidly entered a hallucinatory state:
The sun would come in at a certain time of day at an angle through my window. And all of the little dust particles in my cell were illuminated by the sun. I saw all those particles of dust as other human beings occupying the planet. And they were in the stream of life, they were interacting, they were bouncing off one another. They were doing something collective. I saw myself as off in a corner, walled up. Out of the stream of life.
In September 2010, after more than a year in captivity, Sarah was released and allowed to rejoin the world. The trauma of the event stayed with her: she suffered from depression and was easily led to panic. The next year she married Shane Bauer, one of the other hikers. She reports that she and Shane are able to calm one another, but it's not always easy: they both carry emotional scars.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger suggested that it is difficult to speak of a person "being", instead we are typically "being in the world." This was his way of emphasizing that the world around you is a large part of who you are. The self doesn't exist in a vacuum.
Although scientists and clinicians can observe what happens to people in solitary confinement, it is difficult to study directly. However, an experiment by neuroscientist Naomi Eisenberger can give insight into what happens in the brain in a slightly tamer condition: when we are excluded from a group.
Imagine throwing a ball around with a couple of other people, and at some point you get cut out of the game: the other two throw back and forth between themselves, excluding you. Eisenberger's experiment is based on that simple scenario. She had volunteers play a simple computer game in which their animated character threw a ball around with two other players. The volunteers were led to believe that the other players were controlled by two other humans, but in fact they were just part of a computer program. At first, the others played nicely - but after a while, they cut the volunteer out of the game, and simply threw between each other.
In the social exclusion scenario, a volunteer is cut out of a game of catch.
Eisenberger had the volunteers play this game while they were lying down in a brain scanner (the technique is called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI - see Chapter 4). She found something remarkable: when the volunteers were left out of the game, areas involved in their pain matrix became active. Not getting the ball might seem insignificant, but to the brain social rejection is so meaningful that it hurts, literally.
Why does rejection hurt? Presumably, this is a clue that social bonding has evolutionary importance - in other words, the pain is a mechanism that steers us toward interaction and acceptance by others. Our inbuilt neural machinery drives us toward bonding with others. It urges us to form groups.
This sheds light on the social world that surrounds us: everywhere, humans constantly form groups. We bind together through links of family, friendship, work, style, sports teams, religion, culture, skin pigment, language, hobbies, and political affiliation. It gives us comfort to belong to a group - and that fact gives us a critical hint about our species' history.
[WHEN I WAS 7 WE MOVED TO ANOTHER PART OF TOWN; THERE WERE SOME BOYS PLAYING ON THE STREET, THEY WERE ALL AROUND MY AGE. IT WAS NATURAL, IT WAS SOMETHING MY BRAIN IN A SENSE TOLD ME TO DO - MAKE FRIENDS WITH THEM, AND SO I DID. THE NORMAL BRAIN DOES NOT WANT TO BE ALONE, IT WANTS SOCIAL INTERACTION WITH OTHERS - Keith Hunt]
Beyond survival of the fittest
When we think about human evolution, we're all familiar with the concept of survival of the fittest: it calls to mind the picture of a strong and wily individual who can outfight, outrun, or outmate other members of its species. In other words, one has to be a good competitor to thrive and survive. That model has good explanatory power, but it leaves some aspects of our behavior difficult to explain. Consider altruism: why does survival of the fittest explain why people help each other out? Selection of the strongest individual doesn't seem to cover it, so theorists introduced the additional idea of "kin selection". This means that I care not only about myself, but also others with whom I share genetic material, for example, brothers and cousins. As the evolutionary biologist J S Haldane quipped, "I would gladly jump in a river to save two of my brothers, or eight of my cousins."
However, even kin selection is not enough to explain all the facets of human behavior, because people get together and cooperate irrespective of kinship. That observation leads to the idea of "group selection". Here's the concept: if a group is composed entirely of people who cooperate, everyone in the group will be better off for it. On average, you'll fare better than other people who aren't very cooperative with their neighbors. Together, the members of a group can help each other to survive. They're safer, more productive, and better able to overcome challenges. This drive to bond with others is called eusociality (eu is Greek for good), and it provides a glue, irrespective of kinship, that allows the building of tribes, groups, and nations. It's not that individual selection doesn't occur; it's just that it doesn't provide the complete picture. Although humans are competitive and individualistic much of the time, it's also the case that we spend quite a bit of our lives cooperating for the good of the group. This has allowed human populations to thrive across the planet, and to build societies and civilizations - feats that individuals, no matter how fit, could never pull off in isolation. Real progress is only possible with alliances that become confederations, and our eusociality is one of the major factors in the richness and complexity of our modern world.
So our drive to come together into groups yields a survival advantage - but it has a dark side, as well. For every ingroup, there must exist at least one outgroup.
An understanding of ingroups and outgroups is critical to understand our history. Repeatedly, all across the globe, groups of people inflict violence on other groups, even those that are defenceless and pose no direct threat. The year 1915 saw the systematic killing of over a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks. In the Nanking massacre of 1937, the Japanese invaded China and killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians. In 1994, in a period of one hundred days, the Hutus in Rwanda killed 800,000 Tutsis, largely with machetes.
I don't view this with the detached eye of a historian. If you were to look at my family tree, you would see that most of the branches come to an abrupt end in the early 1940s. They were murdered because they were Jewish, caught in the jaws of the Nazi genocide as a scapegoated outgroup.
After the Holocaust, Europe got in the habit of vowing "never again". But fifty years later, genocide happened again - this time just 600 miles away, in Yugoslavia. Between 1992 and 1995, during the Yugoslav War, over 100,000 Muslims were slaughtered by Serbians in violent acts that became known as "ethnic cleansing". One of the worst events of the war happened in Srebrenica: here, over the course often days, 8,000 Bosnian Muslims - known as Bosniaks - were shot and killed. They had taken refuge inside a United Nations compound after Srebrenica was surrounded by siege forces, but on July 11th 1995, the United Nations commanders expelled all the refugees from the compound, delivering them into the hands of their enemies waiting just outside the gates. Women were raped, men were executed, and even children were killed.
Dutch forces watch over the United Nations compound in which thousands of Bosnian Muslims sought refuge. Hasan Nuhanovic lost his family in the massacre that ensued when the Dutch commanders expelled the refugees into the hands of the siege forces.
[ABSOLUTE DISGUSTING HAPPENINGS AND BY THE UN…..TERRIBLE JUST TERRIBLE. ALL THAT NATIONS DO TO EACH OTHER IN HATE WILL BE JUDGED, ONE DAY GOD WILL GIVE THE WORLD, WELL A GOOD PORTION OF IT, ALL THE DEATH AND BLOOD IT SEEMS TO CRAVE; THE “DAY OF THE LORD” IS NOT A TIME TO LOOK FORWARD TO, ONLY IT WILL HAVE AN END AND JESUS CHRIST WILL RETURN TO RULE THIS EARTH AND ALL NATIONS UPON IT; THEN THERE WILL BE PEACE FOR 1,000 YEARS - Keith Hunt]
I flew to Sarajevo to better understand what had happened, and there I had the chance to speak with a tall, middle-aged man named Hasan Nuhanovic. Hasan, a Bosnian Muslim, had been working at the compound as a UN translator. His family was also there, among the refugees, but they had been sent out of the compound to die, while only he had been allowed to stay because of his value as a translator. His mother, father, and brother were killed that day. The part that haunts him the most is this: "the continuation of the killings, of torture, was perpetrated by our neighbors - the very people we had been living with for decades. They were capable of killing their own school friends."
To exemplify the ways in which normal social interaction broke down, he told me how Serbs arrested a Bosniak dentist. They hung him by his arms from a lightpole, and they beat him with a metal bar until they broke his spine. Hasan told me how the dentist hung there for three days while Serbian children walked past his body on their way to school. As he put it: "There are universal values and these values are very basic: don't kill. In April 1992, this 'don't kill' suddenly disappeared - and it became go and kill?'
[TRULY THE HUMAN HEART AND MIND CAN BE DESPERATELY WICKED, ALL HELPED BY THE DEMONIC WORLD - Keith Hunt]
What allows a diminished emotional reaction to harming another person? The neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried points out that when you look across violent events all over the world, you find the same character of behavior everywhere. It's as though people shift from their normal brain function to act in a specific way. In the same way a physician can look for coughing and fever with pneumonia, he suggested that one can look for and identify particular behaviors that characterize perpetrators in violent situations - and he named this "Syndrome E". In Fried's framework, Syndrome E is characterized by a diminished emotional reactivity, which allows repetitive acts of violence. It also includes hyperarousal, or as the Germans call it, Rausch - a feeling of elation in doing these acts. There's group contagion: everybody's doing it, and it catches on and spreads. There's compartmentalization, in which somebody can care about his own family, and yet perform violence on someone else's family.
From a neuroscientific point of view, the important clue is that other brain functions, such as language and memory and problem solving, are intact. That suggests it's not a brain-wide change, but instead only involves areas involved in emotion and in empathy. It's as though they become, in effect, short-circuited: they no longer participate in decision making. Instead, a perpetrator's choices are now fueled by parts of the brain that underpin logic and memory and reasoning and so on, but not the networks that involve emotional consideration of what it is like to be someone else. In Fried's view, this equates to moral disengagement. People are no longer using the emotional systems that under normal circumstances steer their social decision making.
[IT IS DEMONIC INFLUENCE AND EVEN DEMONIC POSSESSION; THE DEMONS HAVE THE POWER INFLUENCE THE BRAIN IN SUCH A WAY AS TO SCIENTISTS PUT IT AS GIVEN ABOVE - Keith Hunt]
What allows such an alarming shift in human interaction? How can it be compatible with a eusocial species? Why does genocide continue to happen all around our planet? Traditionally we examine warfare and killings in the context of history and economics and politics. However, for a complete picture, I believe we need also to understand this as a neural phenomenon. It would normally feel unconscionable to murder your neighbor. So what suddenly allows hundreds or thousands of people to do exactly that? What is it about certain situations that short-circuits the normal social functioning of the brain?
[WELL THE AUTHOR SURELY WILL NOT VENTURE ON THE PATH OF FIGURING IT, BY REALIZING THERE IS A DEMONIC WORLD OUT THERE INFLUENCING PEOPLE’S MINDS, SO THE HEART OF MAN CAN BECOME DESPERATELY WICKED - Keith Hunt]
Some more equal than others
Can a breakdown of normal social functioning be studied in the laboratory? I designed an experiment to find out.
Our first question was a simple one: does your basic sense of empathy toward someone change depending on whether they are in your ingroup or outgroup?
We put participants in the scanner. They saw six hands on the screen. Like a spinning wheel in a game show, the computer randomly picks one of the hands. That hand then expands into the middle of the screen, and you watch it get touched with a cotton swab, or stabbed with a syringe needle. These are two actions that yield about the same activity in the visual system, but very different reactions in the rest of the brain.
During brain scanning, we showed participants videos of hands being stabbed with a needle or touched with a cotton swab.
As we saw earlier, watching someone else in pain activates one's own pain matrix. That's the basis of empathy. So now we were able to push our questions about empathy to the next level. Once we had established this baseline condition, we made a very simple change: the same six hands appeared on the screen, but now each had a one-word label, reading Christian, Jewish, Atheist, Muslim, Hindu, or Scientologist. When a hand was randomly selected, it expanded to the middle of the screen and was then touched with the cotton swab or stabbed with the syringe needle. Our experimental question was this: would your brain care as much when seeing a member of an outgroup getting hurt?
We found a good deal of individual variability, but on average, people's brains showed a larger empathic response when they saw someone in their ingroup in pain, and less of a response when it was a member of one of their outgroups. The result is especially remarkable given that these were simply one-word labels: it takes very little to establish group membership.
A basic categorization is enough to change your brain's pre-
When this participant saw pain in a member of his ingroup, there was a large neural response in the anterior cingulate cortex. When he watched a member of an outgroup in pain, there was little activity.
conscious response to another person in pain. Now, one might have opinions about the divisiveness of religion, but there's a deeper point to note here: in our study, even atheists showed a larger response to pain in the hand labeled "atheist", and less of an empathic response to other labels. So the result is not fundamentally about religion - it's about which team you're on.
We see that people can feel lower empathy for members of an outgroup. But to understand something like violence or genocide, we still need to drill down one step further, to dehumanization.
Lasana Harris of the University of Leiden in Holland has conducted a series of experiments that move us closer to understanding how that happens. Harris is looking for changes in the brain's social network, in particular the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). This region becomes active when we're interacting with, or thinking about, other people - but it's not active when we're dealing with inanimate objects, like a coffee mug.
Harris shows volunteers photographs of people from different social groups, for example, homeless people, or drug addicts. And he finds that the mPFC is less active when they look at a homeless person. It's as though the person is more like an object.
The medial prefrontal cortex is involved in thinking about other people - at least, most other people.
As he puts it, by shutting down the systems that see the homeless person as a fellow human, one doesn't have to experience the unpleasant pressures of feeling bad about not giving money. In other words, the homeless have become dehumanized: the brain is viewing them more like objects and less like people. Not surprisingly, one is less likely to treat them with consideration. As Harris explains: "if you don't properly diagnose people as human beings, then the moral rules that are reserved for human people may not apply."
Dehumanization is a key component of genocide. Just as the Nazis viewed the Jews as something less than human, the Serbs in former Yugoslavia viewed the Muslims this way.
When I was in Sarajevo, I walked along the main street. During the war it became known as Snipers' Alley because civilian men, women, and children were killed by riflemen crouched in the surrounding hillsides and neighboring buildings. This street became one of the most powerful symbols of the horror of the war. How does a normal city street come to that?
This war, like all others, was fueled by an effective form of neural manipulation, one that's been practiced for centuries: propaganda. During the Yugoslav war the main news network, Radio Television of Serbia, was controlled by the Serb government and consistently presented distorted news stories as factual. The network made up reports of ethnically motivated attacks by Bosnian Muslims and Croats against the Serb people. They continually demonized Bosnians and Croatians, and used negative language in their descriptions of Muslims. At the height of bizarreness, the network broadcast an unfounded story that Muslims were feeding Serbian children to the hungry lions of the Sarajevo zoo.
Genocide is only possible when dehumanization happens on a massive scale, and the perfect tool for this job is propaganda: it keys right into the neural networks that understand other people, and dials down the degree to which we empathize with them.
We've seen that our brains can be manipulated by political agendas to dehumanize other people, which can then lead to the darkest side of human acts.
IT CAN ALSO HAPPEN WITH THE MIND-SET OF “REVENGE” - THIS GROUP DID THIS TO OUR FOREFATHERS, NOW WE WILL DO THIS TO THEM - Keith Hunt]
But is it possible to program our brains to prevent this? One possible solution lies in a 1960s experiment that was conducted not in a science lab, but in a school.
It was 1968, the day after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Jane Elliott, a teacher in a small town in Iowa, decided to demonstrate to her class what prejudice was about. Jane asked her class whether they knew how it would feel to be judged by the color of their skin. The students mostly thought they could. But she wasn't so sure, so she launched what was destined to become a famous experiment. She announced that the blue-eyed people were "the better people in this room".
Jane Elliott: The brown-eyed people do not get to use the drinking fountain. You'll have to use the paper cups. You brown-eyed people are not to play with the blue-eyed people on the playground, because you are not as good as blue-eyed people. The brown-eyed people in this room today are going to wear collars. So that we can tell from a distance what color your eyes are. On page 127... Is everyone ready? Everyone but Laurie. Ready, Laurie?
Child: She's a brown-eye.
Jane: She's a brown-eye. You'll begin to notice today that we spend a great deal of time waiting for brown-eyed people.
A moment later, Jane looks around for her yardstick, and two boys pipe up. Rex points out to her where the yardstick is, and Raymond helpfully offers, "Hey, Mrs. Elliott, you better keep that on your desk so if the brown people [sic], the brown-eyed people get out of hand.”
I recently sat down with those two boys, now grown men: Rex Kozak and Ray Hansen. They both have blue eyes. I asked them if they remembered what their behavior was like on that day. Ray reported that "I was tremendously evil to my friends. I was going out of my way to pick on my brown-eyed friends, for the sake of my own promotion." He recalled that at that time his hair was quite blond and his eyes were quite blue, "and I was the perfect little Nazi. I looked for ways to be mean to my friends, who minutes or hours earlier had been very close to me."
The next day, Jane reversed the experiment. She announced to the class:
The brown-eyed people may take off their collars. And each of you may put your collar on a blue-eyed person. The brown-eyed people get five extra minutes of recess. You blue-eyed people are not allowed to be on the playground equipment at any time. You blue-eyed people are not to play with the brown-eyed people. Brown-eyed people are better than blue-eyed people.
Rex described what the reversal was like: "It takes your world and shatters it like you've never had your world shattered before." When Ray was in the down group, he felt such a deep sense of loss, of personality, and of self, that he felt it was almost impossible to function.
One of the most important things we learn as humans is perspective taking. And children don't typically get a meaningful exercise in that. When one is forced to understand what it's like to stand in someone else's shoes, it opens up new cognitive pathways. After the exercise in Mrs. Elliott's classroom, Rex was more vigilant against racist statements; he remembers telling his father, "that's not appropriate." Rex remembers that moment fondly: he felt affirmed by it, and he knew he'd begun to change as a person.
The brilliance of the blue eyes/brown eyes exercise was that Jane Elliott switched which group was on top. That allowed the children to extract a larger lesson: systems of rules can be arbitrary. The children learned that the truths of the world aren't fixed, and moreover they're not necessarily truths. This exercise empowered the children to see through the smoke and mirrors of political agendas, and to form their own opinions - surely a skill we would want for all our children.
Education plays a key role in preventing genocide. Only by understanding the neural drive to form ingroups and outgroups -and the standard tricks by which propaganda plugs into this drive - can we hope to interrupt the paths of dehumanization that end in mass atrocity.
In this age of digital hyperlinking, it's more important than ever to understand the links between humans. Human brains are fundamentally wired to interact: we're a splendidly social species. Although our social drives can sometimes be manipulated, they also sit squarely at the center of the human success story.
You might assume that you end at the border of your skin, but there's a sense in which there's no way to mark the end of you and the beginning of all those around you. Your neurons and those of everyone on the planet interplay in a giant, shifting super-organism. What we demarcate as you is simply a network in a larger network. If we want a bright future for our species, we'll want to continue to research how human brains interact - the dangers as well as the opportunities. Because there's no avoiding the truth etched into the wiring of our brains: we need each other.
YES WE WERE CREATED TO BE A FAMILY; WE WERE CREATED TO BE IN THE FAMILY OF GOD, THE KINGDOM CALLED GOD. WE WERE CREATED TO BE THE CHILDREN OF GOD THE FATHER, AND BROTHERS AND SISTERS TO JESUS CHRIST. THIS IS ALL FULLY EXPLAINED IN MY STUDY “A CHRISTIAN’S DESTINY” - YOU CAN FIND THAT STUDY UNDER “SALVATION - LAW AND GRACE” SECTION OF THIS WEBSITE - Keith Hunt]