How Young Brains Get Radicalized

Why are brains of a certain age more vulnerable to terrorist recruitment? The answer lies in the prefrontal cortex.

12.05.15 5:00 AM ET

As ISIS attacks around the world grow more frequent, an understanding of exactly how the group’s ideology spreads becomes increasingly critical.

For those living in ISIS-ruled territories or surrounding areas, there are many factors that make joining the group’s ranks almost inevitable. War-torn living conditions, extreme poverty, lack of general and science education, foreign military occupation of one’s homeland, deaths of civilian relatives in drone attacks—the list goes on.

But what about Americans and individuals from other first-world countries like England and France, who have access to top-notch education, a healthy political climate, and a high quality of life? Why are we seeing such large numbers fleeing to fight overseas, or worse, as has been speculated but not confirmed in the San Bernardino shooting, conspiring to commit attacks at home?

In just the last year, at least 100 Americans have left to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and five to 10 times that amount have traveled there from England and France, respectively. What exactly was it that flipped the switch in their mind?

Converting normal people from modernized counties into radicals is all about one thing: persuasion. And persuasion involves figuring out exactly how to convince another person’s brain to obey. A scholar on the Middle East who grew up in Syria and Libya, Nasser Weddady, told The New York Times, “All of us have a natural firewall in our brains that keeps us from bad ideas. [ISIS recruiters] look for weaknesses in the wall, and then they attack.”

Fortunately, findings from neuroscience may help us to understand where these vulnerabilities exist, and why some brains—particularly adolescent brains—are more susceptible to believing whatever they are fed. Such neural insights are important because they contribute to a better understanding of how to combat radicalization here at home. 

According to peer-reviewed research, radicalization is made easier in brains that have impaired functioning in one of the main regions responsible for generating the ability to doubt. Specifically, scientists have found that damage to the brain area known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) may cause individuals to have a “doubt deficit”—a hindered ability to question, scrutinize, or be skeptical of new information.

In a 2012 study published in the journal Neuropsychology, researchers found that patients with damage to the vmPFC scored higher on measures of religious fundamentalism and authoritarianism compared to others.

Such qualities would make people with similar impairments, such as those with decreased or disrupted brain activation in the vmPFC, the perfect prey for ISIS recruiters. According to the authors of the study, “Individuals high in authoritarianism tend to easily submit to authority, are often aggressive in the name of authority, and tend to hold dogmatic beliefs without a reflexive critique.”

So the question is, who possesses poor brain circuitry in the prefrontal cortex that could produce doubt deficits? The unsettling answer: young people.

There is overwhelming evidence that teenagers and those in their early 20s have brain circuits in the prefrontal cortex that are still developing. It may come as no surprise that this brain region is also involved in controlling impulses, regulating our emotions, and making sound decisions. The brain’s wiring simply hasn’t had a chance to make all the proper connections to support such behavior.

This falls in line with what is actually being observed in the real world. Teenagers are commonly targeted through the Internet by ISIS recruiters, like 19-year-old Asher Abid Khan from Texas, who was drawn to the group after watching propaganda videos put up by ISIS online.

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In another case, ISIS members spent months carefully grooming a 23-year-old female named Alex, who was a devout Christian and Sunday school teacher. A recruiter known to her only as “Faisal” provided the lonely girl with constant companionship by spending hours communicating with her through Skype, Twitter, and email, teaching her the fundamentals and rituals of Islam as a first step.

By being so persistent, ISIS recruiters are also exploiting the brain’s natural tendency to accept beliefs rather than reject them. Since the latter requires an additional evaluation phase, which means more work for the brain, its default state is to believe.

These accounts clearly show that ISIS recruiters recognize the young brain’s vulnerabilities—and how to take advantage of them. If we want to protect against their techniques, we have to understand these vulnerabilities as well.

According to a 2015 report from the Pew Research center, 92 percent of teenagers go online daily, and 24 percent are online “almost constantly.” In light of these numbers, it may be beneficial to increase the resources intelligence agencies are putting into fighting ISIS online. If enough agents are posing as ISIS recruiters, it may be possible to identify potential recruits before they become radicalized. Perhaps it would be effective to put special programs in place that provide counseling and education to these individuals, so that they learn the truth about ISIS and the murderous psychopaths in charge.

Finally, we may all be able to play some role in combatting ISIS by looking for signs of radicalization on social media, and reporting anyone suspected of being brainwashed by the group. Oftentimes, these may simply be young people who are wandering aimlessly through life, looking for their calling, who just need some support and guidance to get them back on the right path.