The Neurobiology of Evil

Topic: The neurobiology of evil

Michael Stone: For a long time, people wondered: "Is there something different about the brain of somebody who does violent acts, particularly repetitive violent acts in comparison to an ordinary person’s brain?"  But not very much was known about it until the last maybe 15-20 years, particularly as we entered the era of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging.  And with MRI and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging where you’re actually are taking pictures of the brain as the person is looking at some picture or hearing certain words and showing how the brain blood flow differs from moment to moment, now we really know a lot more than we used to.  And it turns out that there are a number of areas in the brain that are very important in social decision making and moral attitudes and so on.  

If you think that the brain has a number of main sections, there’s, everyone knows about the wrinkly cortex of the part that seems to underlie thought, but there’s a more primitive part of the brain that deals with emotion called the limbic system and then there’s the part of the brain that just has to do with arousal versus just being asleep.  

In the limbic system, there’s the small organ called the amygdala that registers emotion, but particularly has an ability to recognize when somebody else out there has a fearful face or is in a state of fight or upset.  The interesting thing about the kind of cold-hearted murderers is that their amygdala’s don’t function properly, the way ours does and they may recognize dimly that so and so out there is afraid, but they don’t have the concern that you or I would say, if we saw a crying kid in a department store who probably got separated from its mother.  They would recognize it, but they would take advantage of the child, pretend to take it to the information booth, you know, to get it reconnected with its mom, and then kidnap the kid or something like that.  So, their amygdala functions in a significantly different way, as has been shown by a number of neuroscientific researchers in the last 10-15 years.  

Another important area is the front part of the brain, the lower front part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex.  That area is involved in moral decision-making in figure out what’s right versus what’s wrong that we learned as we grow up and are instructed by our parents and our teachers.  So, if that area of the brain is not operating at full tilt, it may be possible then to carryout an act which would be repugnant and very much against the law if it were contemplated by an ordinary person, but that does not stop the individual who has this defect in the orbitofrontal cortex from carrying out the act that he may feel like doing.  So think of the orbitofrontal cortex as kind of a braking system, which if it’s operating will put the brakes on a thought or a desire that may have preceded it: “I’d like to kill that son of a bitch,” or “I want to take that kid and kidnap him and –“ you know, but then one thinks of the consequences, “Oh my god, I’d be eating cheese sandwiches in jail for the rest of my life, I won’t go there.”  But if that cortex is not operating the person would just go ahead and do it.  

So we know now that there’s interconnection between the amygdala and the frontal cortex actually and if that connectivity is not operating properly, the person may go ahead and do the unspeakable crime, which otherwise he would have put the brakes on or maybe even, you know, not even contemplate doing it in the first place.  

There are other areas of the brain, like the anterior cingulate that acts as a kind of a jury so that when messages gets sent up to that part of the brain, the – if you can imagine the anterior cingulate cortex having a mind of its own, so to speak.  It might say, “Well, yeah, I hear you want to kill your wife and get the insurance money, but I don’t know.  You could get into a lot of trouble for that.  And so I’d vote against it.”  And if that message is weak and it gets transmitted to the frontal cortex and the frontal cortex says, “Eh, what the heck.  I can get away with it and I can be rich forever.”  The person goes ahead and does it.  But if the person gets the message from the anterior cingulate that says, “Hm, bad move.  We vote against it.  We don’t have the power to stop it, but we vote against it.”  And the cortex would say, “Yeah, I agree with you guys, we’re not going to let that happen.”  

So there are these very important and interesting areas in the brain that have to do with whether we behave morally or whether we can break the law with impunity. 

Recorded July 28, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.