I Studied The Brains of Potential Terrorists. Here’s What I Learned. | NYT Opinion

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Terrorists rely on
you and me and the way we speak about their
crimes to increase the impact, the virtual
blast radius, massively, from a small town
to the whole nation. “Once again in America,
we are waking up to horrifying news.” “Mass shooting
with casualties.” “In El Paso,
Texas, new details about the carnage
at a Wal-Mart.” The Shooting in
El Paso, Texas, was one of several deadly
attacks in the U.S. last year and beyond. We have a power and
responsibility to save lives, but it means
changing the way we talk in the aftermath
of an attack. You see, I’m a
cognitive scientist, and I’ve spent the last
seven years interviewing radicalized people — members and
supporters of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. My colleagues
and I carried out a bunch of
psychological tests, including the first-ever brain
scans of radicalized people. We didn’t find any
evidence of mental illness, but what we did
find were clues to what makes people
willing to fight and die for their beliefs. To show you how, I need to
tell you about these brain scans, and that means
taking you here. [MUSIC PLAYING] This is where our
fieldwork began, looking for young men between
the ages of 18 and 40, all on the path
to radicalization. And under the
promise of anonymity, they agreed to step
inside an MRI machine. I need to stop
here for a second, because it’s
important that you know about what
cognitive scientists call sacred values. We all have beliefs that
we care so passionately about that we’d be willing
to go to extreme lengths to defend them. Well, guess what? Jihadists also
have sacred values, and they’re willing to use
violence to defend them. And white nationalists
have sacred values, too. [MUSIC PLAYING] It starts with one of these. We put some of
our participants, the less radicalized ones,
into a virtual ballgame with three other players. They threw the ball to
each other like this. After a couple of
rounds, half the players were excluded from the game. The other players
ignored them. And that’s when we put
them into the MRI scanner. We know from previous
research that when people are processing
their sacred values, this part of the brain
right here is very active. And when our subjects
were thinking about their sacred values,
sure enough, it lit up. But after they were
ejected from the ballgame, something weird happened. It lit up for
non-sacred values, too. In other words, when
they felt excluded, the list of things they’re
willing to fight and die for got longer. Of course, people don’t
commit terrorist attacks just because nobody
plays ball with them. But our research
shows that if someone is at the early stage
of radicalization, excluding them can make them
more willing to use violence. [MUSIC PLAYING] In the next study, we took 30
highly radicalized supporters of an Al Qaeda
associate and showed them a scale like this. We asked them to rate
their willingness to fight and die for a
series of sacred values, and then we showed them
where their peers– other Muslims in
the community — fell on the scale. And while they
were doing this, we scanned their brains. We found that when our
subjects were highly willing to use violence,
this part of the brain was deactivated. And that’s a
problem, because it could mean that they’re
not as open to negotiation or persuasion. So how do we reopen
this person’s mind? Well, when we told
our participants that their wider social
group were not as willing to commit violence as they
were, this part of the brain reactivated. And get this — they lowered
their explicit willingness to fight and die for
these values just to match their peers. The lesson here is that
people can be turned away from violence if they
believe that a wider social group disapproves. This is only the first
glimpse into the minds of radicalized
people, but I do think it tells us something
important about the role we play in preventing terrorism. In the days after
the El Paso shooting, I saw a lot of
tweets like this — prominent figures
saying Trump’s base is white nationalist,
or if you support Trump, you support terrorism. Now, I’m not saying you
shouldn’t call out racism, but in a case like this,
blaming all conservatives risks making someone out
there feel more excluded. And if they’re at the early
stages of radicalization, it could push them
closer to violence. At the very least,
it creates divisions in society, which is
exactly what terrorists want to achieve. No. 1, don’t
blame whole groups. And if you see or
hear friends, family or people you follow online talking that way, challenge them. And number two, seek
out and amplify voices on the right who are
condemning violence. I still remember this tweet
from a Trump supporter urging him to make a statement
about white nationalism. He said, “We have to tell
them we do not want them to be part of us.” Voices like this have the
power to turn someone away from violence. We’re not responsible for
the actions of terrorists, but we all have the
power to limit the blast radius of an atrocity
and maybe even prevent the next one.


  1. This is amazing! Your research could change the way we identify children with a propensity to be radicalised, but first we’ve got to remove some red hats… Seriously, the potential is there for intervention in radicalisation of our young people.

  2. Powerful. As a kid who was bullied, feelings of retaliation/anger definitely can spring from being excluded. I hope this inspires ppl to be kind and mindful of the 'weird' people in life; you never know what they're going through. Being kind can change a life.

  3. How do you find the brains of potential terrorists? How do you determine the potential vs. the non-potential?

  4. Terrorism is simply an attempt to achieve means that are not achievable in a conventional way, often due to the weakness of the position from which the so-called 'terrorist' tries to influence or change the outcome.

  5. My grand mom practiced it.
    She was kind and Compassionate and inclusive , even towards ppl who were initially showcased terrible personalities , eventually everyone wud thaw automatically and become physically and verbally gentle with her and her family.
    I strive to have her level of patience and decency. Spcly on days when the external word is anything but….

  6. This makes me so confused… How do we challenge them? A lot of people I know just start verbal attacks when they are confronted with different beliefs and opinions, they go for personal abuse, like calling you names, telling other people you are stupid, or crazy, so like, I don't know what to do when something turns like this. If I can't deal with people like this, how do we deal with potential terrorists?

  7. It is all BS, killers are everywhere , on all sides of the law. We have no right to call others terrorists until we cease being killers ourselves.

  8. So what was the conclusion when you study the brains up every single United States President since Eisenhower? I didn't catch the point of your entire segment about what happens to the brains of terrorists.

  9. The fact that the narrator regarded AOC as a "prominent figure" is evidence of the narrator's own radicalization.

  10. And most of the people say it is good to use violence against bad people like Nazis. You are just making them more "Nazi".

  11. Here's something else. If you listen to Rush Limbaugh's radio shows, notice there is one word he uses more than any other. The word is "they". Rush Limbaugh can't seem to say anything at all without employing the word "they" many times during each topic he addresses on his show. One wonders what he would do if the word "they" was in some magical way suddenly no longer used by english language speakers. While Rush appears to be the King of They, i started listening to others who regularly speak in public and it didn't matter who was speaking or what the topic was that they were speaking about, those speakers who used the word "they" frequently during their public performance of any discussion about any topic, those who relied heavily on the word "they" within the structure of their comments were nearly always to be presenting an idea or a topic in a manner that was clearly trying to get people to divide the topic into at least two parts such that the very way the speaker chose the words they used and the manner in which they deployed thos words generally cause listeners to feel encouraged to choose to like the topic when it was presented in a certain way, and dislike it when it was presented in another way that clearly and specifically disagreed with the first way the topic was presented. It became clear to me that any speaker of the english language in these modern times, if i begin to hear that speaker use the word "they" a whole lot in what they wish to talk about, the longer I listen to them the more I realize the speaker is more likely to be trying to incite and polarize people against one another rather then trying to be helpful aboiut the topic at hand and encourage everyone to give real thought to try and find ways to work togehter on the topic instead of just trying to keep everyone upset all the time. If you hear a speaker always finding a reason to include the word "they" a whole lot in what they have to say, you can be certain the speaker's has an adjjenda behind the topic at hand, and it is one that is designed not to facilitate a rational contemplation of an idea that encourages all to offer their throughts and work together to find an actual solution, but that speaker who always uses the word "they" all the time, all the time all the time is most certainly not trying to be helpful in any way whatsoever but is instead trying very hard to confuse you instead of speak the truth to you. Even this comment I'm writing here, I keep specifically using the word "they" to not only define my topic, but to define that those who use it are the "they" and I characterise those as the bad guys. Anyh time you hear someone addicted to using the word "they" far more often then most speakers, you can be certain they are not doing it by accident. For as seen here, it's certainly no accident I'm using the word "they" a lot.. But no matter, asking them to define who "they" are just getsthe speaker mad and suddenly the speaker will discover that you, the questioner, must also be among the "they" and the rest of the audience, the speaker suggests, should be wary that there is one of "them" in the audience and the audience, the speakers will suggest, that they should be warry of _(fill in the blank.) Chant and answer, chant and repeat: Speaker: Who causes all problems? Audience: They do!! Speaker: Who? Audience: They do!! and on and on and on. Rush and Donald J. and anybody else who keeps saying "they" in every breath _ _ _ _ take are trying to take more than just your breath…

  12. This video, honestly the narration is great and props to the man on his research. This research is really interesting and honestly overall this was an amazing video.

  13. This documentary advices you to stop reifying white people and urges you to be kind with your classical conservative neighbours . So much for the political moment <3

  14. One would think that someone with true 'sacred values' would refuse to step into your machine, anonymous or otherwise.

  15. The NYT should fking focus on NY city, there are only 38 persons tested so far , its already spread and CDC refuses to test it. 2 weeks from now NYC medical system will collapse

  16. Its kind of sad because people can dislike this and hate this all they want, the fact that they have to actually try to open their minds to people in a really bad state of mind, but none of that matters if you are killed, what use is your ego and pride when you are dead?

  17. Although Agnostic, I cannot help but see the wisdom of the Christian ideal of "Love your enemy" at work here.
    We respond with rejection and hate because of our fears. If we can put aside our fears, and see people we disagree with as just people, then maybe we can solve the terrorist problem.

  18. Radicalized People? – "what we did find is clues to what makes people fight and die for their beliefs." Really!? Oh you mean like patriotism, cultural and ethnic pride? Kinda like US soldiers stationed all over the world "ready to use violence to defend their 'sacred values' ". So do you consider drone bombing around the world radical, how about invading and occuppying countries we haven't declared war on? Is it OK if your part of an official military unit? I find your assumptions and framing questionable. Even your list of "sacred values" for each group is loaded with assumptions. Seems to me like you're saying people who hold strongly to their beliefs are willing to fight for them, especially if they feel threatened. We needed a study for this, is it not common sense? I also think it's telling you only talk about far right radicals, so there's no radicalization on the left? No, antifa calling for violence?

  19. "Don't blame whole groups"
    I will still do it. You can't just ignore certain ideologies that breed these kinds of behaviour. Neuroscience knows too little about how brains actually work to erase lessons from centuries of human history.
    Acts of terror do not arise in a social vacuum, they are facilitated through an ideological climate that provides justification for such atrocities. Or where do you think your "sacred values" come from?

  20. So, "cognitive science" is still a social science (susceptible to mistakes, error, indeterminism or freewill). In the i9th century, thinkers wanted "moral science" to believe morality could be predictable, and invented the unpopular social science, psychology, presupposing (as metaphysics always has) that any report of things signified meaningfulness (inductive generalization, from the particular to the universal). Now, rather than point to words used in reasoning, we use markers to point to drawings of a brain (all of which are still symbols). If the criteria for meaningful significance were truly universal, the significance would be much more particular (and openly stated so). No link to the research.

    Psychology was never meant to be popular. Reasoning most creatively requires universal generalization, which is either deductive or inductive (thus supplying how we distinguish types of reasoning, primarily because it's reported reasoning, not psychic deliverance). The same people who popularized memes aren't around for some reason. Oh, right, they were called "militant atheists," but never militant until atheists openly identified themselves as atheists (as combat soldiers). 20 years since the "militant atheists," some accepted and rejected its meaning (the experimental psychology of "memes" or memetics).

    Eventually, teaching logic, relevance, and evidence will show much better results for morality in the long run than pragmatist analogies and the eternal introduction to treadmill uncertainty that skepticism is known for. So, you don't have to wait on the street corner for a mugger to try pragmatist trial-and-error anymore. Cognitive science? Or simply Ideological inductivism, forever required of social science? Likewise, you don't have to scan the entire population to verify your own reasoning, even as you seek to popularize it.

    Where's the research data?

  21. We have to get out of the radical individualistic mindset of believing that by stopping individual terrorists we can stop terrorism. No man is an island; peer and community pressure are powerful. Neither the American left or right will acknowledge that since they believe that humans are isolated selves who have to make their own decisions.

  22. I actually dont worry about terrorism too much, well maybe a bit! But what I do worry about is the banks and governments power over the entire worlds money and police/armed forces. Now that's a scary thing. Terrorists are very small fish compared to that.
    Why shouldn't they all be investigated and brain scanned.

  23. ohhh they can read your thoughts and intents and your now labeled a terrorist because of it ! Folks, here comes the thought police with brain scan readers. This is a very serious dangerous dogma working to abolish our (western) freedoms !!!!

  24. To say “don’t blame whole groups” to certain people could very well mean “don’t be ridiculous” or “don’t be stupid”. Unfortunately people are…

  25. Hmmm… so, then, Sam Harris was correct? It should be up to the moderate Muslims to deradicalize the Jihadists.

  26. “Young men between 18 and 40”????
    Please, get real. Young men between 18 and 21, maybe.
    If you’re still a “young man” after that, you didn’t bother living.
    You’re not young. You’re not a man.

  27. Sorry, impossible to accept as reasonable. Trump wants nothing more than to include psychotic a-holes as an integral part of his base. Without psychotic a-holes, he has nothing.

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