The Neuroscience of ISIS

The gap is widening between visions of a brilliant future and one of deliberate Apocalyptic destruction.

02.28.15 11:55 AM ET

This is the first of a series of columns for The Daily Beast about the intersection of medical technologies on the cusp of changing our lives, and how they fit into the real world. Join me every other Saturday.

Call it a tale of two brains: the extreme dichotomy of human behavior that runs the age-old gamut between evil and good.

Recently this duality has manifested in the rise of the so-called Islamic State (also the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) set against an accelerating pace of technological breakthroughs. One worldview wants to burn people alive, the other to regenerate damaged cells, engineer advanced artificial limbs, and send tourists to the moon.

Put another way, it’s Homeland versus TED.

For those optimistic about the future this is an exciting time to be alive. They believe we are on the cusp of an era when millions and possibly billions of people will be connected, vital, well fed, entertained, and so healthy that some may live extra decades in youthful bodies free of many diseases that now afflict us.

Contrast that with the likes of ISIS and Boko Haram, the Charlie Hebdo gunmen in Paris, and the Tzarnaez brothers in Boston. They remind us with a jolt that not everyone sees a bright tomorrow. Not for themselves. Nor for a society that they want to first return to the brutality of the seventh century and then annihilate in a sea of blood. For the Islamic State this is literal, as Graeme Wood reported in his recent Atlantic cover story, “What ISIS Really Wants.”

According to Wood, the tens of thousands of young men (and a few women) flocking to Syria and Mesopotamia yearn to leap back to a time when torture, rape, beheadings, and other brutalities were commonly deployed by Muslims, Christians, and others under the guise of religious purity. Led by self-proclaimed “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the followers of ISIS eagerly await their demise in an Armageddon that could not be more antithetic to techno optimists who yearn for a future where pain, suffering, and even death may be eliminated.

In this column, I will be writing about a moment in history when thousands of inventions and discoveries, from big data tracking our every move to editing DNA like you would a Microsoft Word doc, are rapidly expanding and converging. Poised to profoundly change how we live, they may also change what it means to be human.

Where this convergence—I call it “fusion”—will lead is anyone’s guess. Nor do we fully understand the pluses or the minuses of this Age of Fusion. The impact, however, will be felt at every level of society—in politics, business, law, philosophy, ethics, advocacy, and the arts. We already have seen the effects, both beneficial and not, of rapidly accelerating technologies over the past century on our environment, lifespans, transportation, communication, and ethics—and how people live.

People’s response to new technologies is equally critical. Reactions range from fear and suspicion to exhilaration; from “I can’t figure out this dang app” to eagerness for a day when humans and machines merge into a super intelligence—what futurist and Google Director of Engineering Ray Kurzweil calls the Singularity.

For instance, are drones that sell for $399 cool or dangerous? Will Amazon use them and others to more efficiently deliver groceries and Google to bring Internet transponders to the poor, or will governments use them to spy on us and to continue to drop bombs?

In the context of the ongoing “technology: is it good or bad” debate it may seem far-fetched and even farcical to talk about villains that seem drawn out of Hollywood thrillers behaving like barbarians on the other side of the Earth from where most of us live. Indeed, ISIS’s penchant for running about swathed in black like the Dread Pirate Roberts and their rejection of 1,300 years of change is so astonishingly extreme that it’s hard for us to process. So are the images of beheadings and auto-de-fés conveyed, ironically, via the 21st technology of social media.

ISIS and the others should hardly be dismissed, however, as distant anomalies or blood-soaked curiosities. Like good, evil has a nasty predilection to reappear across history and across peoples and ideologies, including in recent decades the likes of the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge.

Regrettably, science has very little to say about what exactly causes some brains to embrace such extremes of evil and violence, or such a vehement rejection of change—a gap in science that should be addressed.

Biologists have identified a handful of genetic mutations that seem to portend violent behavior. For instance, researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden recently discovered two genetic mutations that seem to correlate with the violent criminal behavior, including murder. First is the gene Monoamine Oxidase A (MAOA), which is linked to dopamine levels in the brain, associated with people feeling happy and adjusted. The second is Cadherin 13 (CDH13), which has a strong correlation to controlling impulses. Both need further study to confirm and better understand.

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Neuroscientists are also working on using Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans that measure activity in the brain to better understand and perhaps predict who might commit a terrorist act. So far, however, no one has identified a telltale terrorist gene or brain profile.

Nor do scientists have a deep understanding of the mechanisms of belief, extreme or otherwise, in the brain. One study I have written about previously, conducted in the lab of neuroscientist Jordan Grafman when he was the National Institutes of Health, measured the blood flow to locales in one’s head associated with religious belief. “The purpose of the study has been to discover the underlying cognitive structure of religious beliefs—to find out what cognitive processes take place when religious and nonreligious people think about religion,” said Dimitrios Kapogiannis, a postdoc in Grafman’s lab at the time. “Then we want to identify brain regions that become active with each such process.”

Kapogiannis and Grafman have tested only a few dozen subjects, however, and much work remains to be done, including studies on the combination of belief and violent behavior. (Kapogiannis’ and Grafman’s most recent results appear in the journal Brain Connect).

I have no doubt that various national security agencies are working in secret to better understand the genetics and biology of extremists—something I plan to write more about. I also want to look into the interplay of genetics and the environment to try to better understand the tale of two brains—the environment including the influences of ideology, unemployment, abuse, and lack of purpose that likely interact with genetics to produce extremists, and are likely to keep producing them until we understand this toxic interaction better.

Those of us already enjoying the burgeoning world of the future—that live lifestyles and have opportunities that no one in the seventh century could have dreamed of—need to understand with some urgency that not everyone shares their enthusiasm. Whether it’s genetics or environmental factors, or both, the human impulse to fret and dither about change—or to abhor it to the point of blowing up people and dreaming of world destruction—can be as powerful as the impulse to innovate.