[Paleopsych] Inner Worlds: Neurobiology of Religious Terrorism

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Neurobiology of Religious Terrorism
[This is a dubious site. Links to other articles below.]

    Todd Murphy, Researching Behavioral Neuroscientist

    Understanding the mind of a suicidal terrorist is a special challenge
    in psychology. Not only do their actions show a highly aggressive
    personality, but their motivations seem to outweigh even the
    imperative for self-preservation.

    The profile of the suicide bomber is not at all simple. We think of
    them as maniacs; madmen driven by national and religious hatred, or a
    simplistic 'will to power'. Yet, should soldiers do the same thing
    fighting in a cause we support, we're quick to quote our own culture's
    holy books: "There can be no greater love than to lay down one's

    The suicide himself is usually not forced to his actions. He is not
    held prisoner, nor forced at gunpoint to complete his mission. The
    Kamikaze of the second world war was motivated differently. They were
    told that they were defending their homes and families from imminent
    destruction by US forces, and that they had a chance to stop the
    American fleet from arriving in Japan. If they succeeded, their
    families would escape danger. For the contemporary Islamic terrorist,
    no such threat exists. Their failure will not mean the end of their
    way of life, nor the deaths of their families.

    So, how to account for their unprecedented dedication? Or their
    'greatest love'?

    The answer lies in the unique psychology of the religious killer.

    Fortunately, a recent study addresses the issue:

    "I Would Kill in God's Name:"

    Role of Sex, Weekly Church Attendance, Report of Religious Experience,
    and Limbic Lability"
    M.A. Persinger, Perceptual And Motor Skills, 1997, 85, 128-130 [3]link

    The study is part of a larger research effort in the neurological
    bases of religious experience, including religious personalities,
    religious conversions, and now, extreme religious views.

    It was done by administering a set of questionnaires to 1480
    university students that asked about a wide range of religious
    beliefs, habits and behaviors. It also asked about how often the
    subjects had more common, 'altered state' experiences, like deja vu,
    the sense of a presence, electric-like sensations, and many others.
    Taken together, these latter experiences (complex partial epileptic
    signs) give a measure of a person's "Limbic Lability".

    The statistical analysis involved taking each questionnaire that
    included a 'yes' response to an item that asked if they would be
    willing to kill for God.

    All the questionnaires that included a 'yes' to this were examined to
    see what other items emerged in association with a willingness to kill
    in 'His' name.

    Four factors emerged.

    1) Having had a religious experience.

    2) Weekly church attendance (religious orthodoxy).

    3) Being Male.

    4) Limbic lability (which will be explained).

    The next step was to look at all the questionnaires that showed all
    four traits, creating a second group.

    44% of this second group stated that they would kill another person if
    God told
    them to.
    The study was based on university students, and if generalizable, then
    out of 20 Canadian university students would be willing to kill
    another person if
    they were to attribute the instruction to God.

    Let's examine these factors, one-by-one.


    In dismissing religious experience, both modern scientists and
    politicians miss a factor that offers a more powerful motivation than
    patriotism, national defense, greed, or military pride.

    The absolute conviction that firsthand experience creates. Religious
    experience (1).

    Religious experience can take many forms. In its most intense
    manifestations, it can involve seeing God, or hearing his voice.
    Out-of-body experiences, a lucid or exceptionally powerful dream,
    sensing the presence of an angel, and even moments of creative

    It can also appear as an emotional peak that might happen during a
    religious meeting, or a political meeting with religious overtones.

    In the aftermath of a religious experience, the individual will almost
    inevitably interpret it terms of their religious or spiritual
    views(2). Whatever the idea the person uses most readily will lend a
    context to their epiphany. From then on, it acquires an ethos of
    absolute truth. It 'feels' like the truth. At present, many Islamic
    religious leaders are being quite vocal that violence and terrorism
    have nothing to do with Islam, and wonder openly at how terrorists
    reconcile their actions with the teachings of Islam, with it's
    constant rejoinders to compassion and mercy.

    The answer probably lies in the sense of certainty that a religious
    experience can create. They do not need to consider the teachings of
    the Koran. Instead, they 'feel' the world in terms of their religious
    'awakening', a direct message from God; one that supersedes scripture.
    All Islamic teachings are seen through it's lens. When the idea that
    dominates their world is that of Jihad, then war and destruction are
    seen as a 'higher' form of compassion.

    Before we jump to the conclusion that we could never see any wisdom or
    compassion in being aggressive, we might recall how we support, in our
    minds, Jesus as he drove the money-changers from the temple of
    Jerusalem. That was an act of violence, guided by a higher wisdom. So,
    in Truman's mind, was the bombing of Hiroshima. The step from higher
    wisdom to violence is all too common. Anyone who has ever gone too far
    in punishing a child has made it.
    For the Jihadi, like anyone else, the full range of religious
    experiences is quite large. A person might hear a religious statement,
    and feel a parasthesia, a tingling or electric-like feeling, or more
    commonly, an intense burst of emotion. The statement, whatever it is,
    suddenly acquires tremendous force. The person having the experience
    is easily convinced that the statement is true.

    The powerful emotions experienced during a political rally, given a
    religious interpretation, make it's goal or theme into a religious
    truth. At least insofar as the person will then accept the message as
    part of their own faith.

    If it glorifies the individual; if it 'saves' them, or makes them feel
    that they are one of the "chosen few" or the "anointed" or that their
    service to God is special, the person can begin to identify themselves
    more as the one 'touched by god' than simply as a person. Once a
    person identifies with God, their own life can actually be seen as
    being in the way, a hindrance to unity with "Him".

    Suicide is sanctioned when it is believed to a part of God's plan, and
    the person who commits it in his name may seem to be spiritually
    elevated; a high and holy being.

    "A leading Islamist authority, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, recently
    explained the distinction this way: attacks on enemies are not suicide
    operations but "heroic martyrdom operations". (3)

    In all probability, Jihad suicides are not motivated by a desire to
    elicit fear. Their military superiors certainly are, but the
    individual is much more likely to be motivated by the desire for an
    intangible, personal, reward.

    The desire to experience, once again, the peak moments of their lives.

    People who have had religious experiences will often do whatever it
    takes to re-capture those moments.

    Indeed, suicide in this context is not without precedent. One type of
    religious experience (far more intense than the type that can occur in
    moments of extreme religious fervor) is the now-well-known Near-Death
    Experience (NDE). There have been reports of suicides by people who
    have had deeply spiritual experiences while clinically dead, but were
    later revived. While the overwhelming majority of NDE experiences say
    that they would never consider suicide, they also often have a deep
    longing to return to the blissful state they had while they were
    having their NDEs.

    History records many examples of suicide for religious reasons. The
    Jim Jones cult, the mass-suicide of Jewish Zealots under siege by the
    Roman General Vespasian at Masada, the Vietnamese Patriarch who
    immolated himself in protest during the Vietnam War, Joan of Arc's
    refusal to recant her preaching, based on her visions, even though it
    meant being burned at the stake.

    The point is that religious experience can introduce priorities for a
    person that are quite 'larger than life.' So much so that death can
    lose it's repellent quality. It can even become quite exalted. Both
    the killer and the killed can seem trivial compared to God's larger
    plan. Revulsion at suicide in "His" service can seem almost

    Islamic tradition records that having visions can help a Jihadi to
    fulfill his mission. The very word assassin derives from the Arabic
    word Hashishim, a medieval word that referred to a group of assassins
    who were offered hashish-induced visions as a preview of the heavenly
    rewards that awaited them after giving their lives in Jihad.

    In fact, the relationship between the leaders and the individual
    terrorists attackers is probably better compared to a Guru and his
    disciples than a general and their troops. The FBI has considerable
    valid material on the psychology of the 'surrendered disciple',
    gathered during their investigation of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh prior to
    his departure from the US in 1985. Many trained psychotherapists were
    involved in his organization, and later repudiated him as their Guru.
    Important former disciples from this group may have useful insights to

    Today's terrorists have probably replaced hashish with emotionally
    intense moments during rallies and prayer meetings. Both can have
    profound effects on the limbic system, and both can cement beliefs
    solidly into place.

    The suicidal Jihadi perceives themselves as making the supreme
    sacrifice for God. They believe they will enjoy special rewards in the
    hereafter, and, because of the architecture all human brains share,
    they have a sense that the fulfillment for the longing their peak
    experience created will happen at death. Having the sense of being on
    a mission from God in dying, they simply cannot imagine that they will
    not attain a "peace which passeth understanding".

    Further, terrorist orthodoxy would interpret the suicidal Jihadi as a
    traitor against god should he change his mind, once he had
    volunteered. Social pressures to follow through are enormous.

    The Jihadi who, in a moment of fervor or deep reflection, decides to
    give his life for the holy war, may have little choice but to follow
    through. Like the Japanese kamikaze who chose to pilot his plane to
    it's destination, the Jihadi remains on the course he is given.

    Such a Jihadi will either not have been exposed to alternative
    interpretations for their behavior, or will reject them out of hand
    due to their unorthodox origin.

    When confronted with vital decisions, the orthodox ally with

    Because people who have had religious experience use them as the
    benchmark for their spirituality, rather than the scriptures or
    teachings, they will often be very reticent to share their experiences
    and missions with others. Most people who have had deep religious
    experiences feel that others just 'do not understand'. With phrases
    like 'there are none so deaf as those who will not hear', and "you
    shall not cast your pearls before swine", people tend to keep very
    quiet about the sense of destiny that their religious experience gives

    In more practical terms, they very likely prefer to avoid the
    challenges to their self identity that challenges to their ideology
    would create. A bit like a child who avoids showing off their writing
    in class for fear of ridicule.

    The need for security among religious terrorists can acquire a sacred
    connotation in this way. In relating to their fellow Moslems, they may
    see themselves as consecrated holy men, an 'inner circle', moving
    among a spiritless herd of sheep, if they relate to them at all.


    The item in the study asked about weekly church attendance is worth
    looking at. The study was done in Canada, in a predominantly Christian
    community (Sudbury, Ontario). It would seem to evidence traditional,
    orthodox, or institutionalized beliefs.

    Going to church every week is, in this paper, interpreted as evidence
    of religious orthodoxy.

    Like the churchgoer, the Jihadi embraces a set of beliefs they share
    in common with a community, and they participate in the life of that
    community regularly. This now refers to their own, 'inner' circle, and
    not that of other Moslems.

    Orthodoxy in belief is reinforced by subtle social rewards from the
    community almost constantly. Leaders within the community are also the
    ones who demonstrate the deepest understanding of it's beliefs. It's
    heroes are the ones who do the most for the cause. Missionary work,
    charity, and religious practice are good sacrifices, but nothing,
    absolutely nothing, compares with martyrdom.

    This is where some beliefs peculiar to Islam come into play.

    Not only does it sanction war in the name of Allah, but it promises
    acceptance into heaven to those who die in these wars, called Jihads,
    and considers them to be martyrs. This allows suicides to see
    themselves as martyrs, as well. In fact, they probably consider
    themselves as the highest form of martyr.

    Although the term "Mohajadinn" is usually used for fighters in Jihads,
    we will use the term "Jihadi" here, so as to avoid accidental
    pejorative reference to legitimate Islamic freedom fighters, who
    appear regularly in recent history.


    One of the features of the religious killer is that they are usually,
    but not always, male. One exception to this has been the female
    suicide bomber in Sri Lanka who attempted to assassinate it's
    president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, in 1999.

    The male brain differs from the female brain in that it seems to be
    less "multitasking" (4). When a male is engaged in a task, fewer brain
    structures are activated, in most cases, than a female brain engaged
    in the same task.

    Males, therefore, are better able to maintain the orthodoxy required,
    and to exclude items from their thoughts (denial), like, for example,
    the long-term consequences of their actions.

    The dominant point of reference will always be the religious
    experience, and the framework of beliefs used to interpret them.

    The male brain seems better adapted to handle the 'single-pointedness'
    religious mania requires.


    Temporal lobe lability refers to a person's sensitivity to altered
    states of consciousness. I don't mean the dramatic ones, such as
    religious visions. I mean the more subtle ones, with phenomena like
    like deja vu, 'sensing a presence', pins and needles sensations,
    fleeting visions during twilight sleep, and other common episodes (5).

    These occur in a continuum across the human population (5, 27). Some
    are very sensitive, having these experiences very often, and others
    never have them at all.

    Not all people who have these experiences also have religious
    experiences, but almost everyone who has had a religious experience
    has (6, 26).

    In the body of research to date (7, 28), these experiences appear when
    two structures within the temporal lobes have their normal
    communications between one another disturbed. This can happen between
    the two hemispheres, or between two structures , within the limbic
    system (deep in the temporal lobes), or between a deep structure and
    the surface of the temporal lobes.

    In this model (vectorial hemisphericity and interhemispheric
    intrusions (8, 9), the event of the religious experience is likened to
    an extremely small epileptic event that stays in the temporal lobes of
    the brain. These are called "microseizures (10)".

    Like larger epileptic seizures, these experiences make lasting changes
    in the brain (11). The personality of the person, their 'sense of
    self', is forever changed as their limbic system now has a few
    pathways (matrices of neurons) 'burned in' in a process known as
    'kindling'. Pathways that relate to the human sense of self.

    The limbic system plays a crucial role in the production of thought
    and emotion. It also deals in two rather subtle phenomena.
    Meaningfulness and contextualization (12). These direct our thoughts
    and feelings into recurring patterns unique to each individual, and
    with them, unique behavior patterns.

    The connotations of words are processed through their meanings and in
    the context in which we hear them. The sense that an experience "means
    something" or that words 'mean something more' than they say, are two
    examples of somewhat raw experiences of meaningfulness.

    If a thought feels meaningful, then it will try to find a context for
    itself. The more meaningful, the larger the context must be. God's
    will becomes larger, or more important, than life itself.

    A more salient point at this juncture is that the religious experience
    begs the largest possible context, even if only in one's thought's.
    The largest context, for Peoples of the Book, ( to coin a phrase) has
    always been God, and "His" whole world.

    In order to encompass their experience the person must make use of
    some rather exotic ideas. Ideas which are as far from their ordinary
    experience as their peak moments.

    For the Islamic terrorist, these are well known. Jihad, doing God's
    will, martyrdom, etc. Death. In 'His' name.


    In recent years, it has emerged that the human psyche can be affected
    by seismic activity, or rather, seismic (or tectonic) strain (13, 14).

    The more earthquakes and tremors in a given area, the more often the
    earth's magnetic field changes, and that can have an impact on how our
    brains function.

    Our brains are sensitive to changes in the earth's magnetic field
    because they contain large numbers of organically-grown magnetite

    By coincidence or design, patterns seem to appear in the geomagnetic
    field, and these seem to have some overlap with the magnetic signals
    that are created when our brains are engaged in normal electrical
    firing. Specifically, in the limbic system. Exposure to the earth's
    magnetic field is 'chronic', meaning constant and long-term. Chronic
    exposure to changing magnetic fields could make the populations of
    seismically-active areas demonstrate a higher-than-average limbic
    lability. In other words, areas with a lot of earthquakes and tremors
    are more likely to produce a population willing to kill in God's name,
    all other conditions being equal.

    According to the Israeli Seismic Network's "Galilee" data set, Israel
    had 28 earthquakes in one three-year period. (1987 to 1991). That's
    about one every five weeks. (15)

    One possibility that cannot be discounted presently is that the
    Israeli /
    Palestinian territories might produce populations with either higher
    normal limbic lability, or that their limbic phenomena might show
    specific patterns
    whose behavioral correlates with aggressive thoughts (ideation) and

    Although so far, there have been no statistical studies of
    temporal-lobe-based behaviors in seismically active areas, the notion
    has been considered with California's southern lake county designated
    as a good area to carry out such a study.

    Eventual studies in this field may allow a meaningful measure of the
    aggressiveness of in seismically-active areas, and with that, an
    estimate of the size of the population within the Palestinian minority
    willing to go to the furthest extremes, "in God's name".

    There are three cultures best known for the glorification of suicide,
    the Arabic-speaking terrorist sub-culture, the Aztecs, who exalted the
    act of volunteering as a human sacrifice, and medieval Japan, where
    suicide reached the status of a cult behavior within the Shinto
    religion, complete with it's own ceremony.

    All of these areas are subject to frequent seismic activity.

    1) Given a sufficiently large population, large numbers of individuals
    who fit the criteria (about 1 in 20, based on the Canadian data)
    should be readily available. When the data is corrected for local
    seismically, we should find that the number increases noticeably. Any
    estimates based on this data should be reduced substantially in
    recognition that suicide is a less-probable behavior, all other
    conditions being equal, than homicide. However, the relative incidence
    of each behavior in normal populations may not necessarily provide
    meaningful estimates. Suicide is prohibited in normal religious
    belief, but sanctioned, even suggested, for the Jihadi.

    2) Jihadi who have had a religious experience and fit the other
    criteria should be much more willing to volunteer than others, due to
    their personal sense of destiny, which martyrdom will appear to

    3) The more successful attacks this group performs, the more willing
    their volunteers will be, as they see their predecessors attaining the
    highest spiritual promotion, while they themselves only stand and

    In short, the territorial and ideological conditions in the Middle
    East may favor the production of populations willing to kill for God.

    These considerations may help us to see that terrorists are not
    entirely the products of hate-mongers, and that they may not beyond
    help and reform.



    (1) Persinger, Michael A. ", Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs",
    Praeger, 1987

    (2) Persinger, M.A., ";Vectorial Cerebral Hemisphericity as
    Differerential Sources for The Sensed Presence, Mystical Experiences
    and Religious Conversions"; Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1993, 76,

    3) The Jerusalem Post July 27, 2001

    4) Moir, Anne, Ph.D. & Jessel, David "Brain Sex: The Real Difference
    between Men & Woman" Laurel Publications, 1991

    5) Persinger, Michael A.,& Makarec, Katherine "Complex partial Signs
    As A continum From
    Normals To Epileptics: Normative Data And Clinical Populations"
    Journal Of Clinical
    Psychology, Jan 1993, 49 (1) 33-37

    6) Persinger, M.A., "People Who report Religious Experiences May Also
    Display Enhanced Temporal-Lobe Signs". Perceptual and Motor Skills,,
    1984, 58, 963-975

    7) Persinger, M.A. "Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of
    Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis.", Perceptual and Motor
    Skills 1983, 57, 1255-1262

    8) Persinger, M.A. ";Enhanced Incidence of the ";Sensed Presence"; in
    People Who have learned to Meditate: Support for the Right Hemispheric
    Intrusion Hypothesis"; Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1992, 75,
    9) Persinger, Michael A. Bureau, Yves, R.J. Peredery, Oksana, P.,
    Richards, Pauline M. ";The sensed Presence as Right Hemispheric
    Intrusions into the Left Hemispheric Awareness of self: An
    Illustrative Case Study."; Perceptual And Motor Skills, 1994, 78,

    10) Persinger, Michael A. "Striking EEG Profiles From Single Episodes
    of Glossolalia and Transcendental Meditation" Perceptual & Motor
    Skills. 1984, 58, 127-133

    11) Persinger, Michael A., "Near-Death Experiences: Determining the
    Neuroanatomical Pathways by Experiential Patterns, and Simulation In
    Experimental Settings."; Appeared in "Healing: Beyond Suffering or
    Death." Ministry of Mental Health Publications, Quebec, Canada, 1994.

    12) Miller, Robert, "Cortico-Hippocampal Interplay And The
    Representation of Contexts in the Human Brain" Springer-Verag, 1991

    13) M.A. Persinger, Out-of Body -Like experiences are More Probable in
    People With Elevated Complex Partial Epileptic-Like Signs During
    Periods of Enhanced Geomagnetic Activity: A Nonlinear Effect'
    Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1995, 80, 563-569

    14) Conesa, Jorge, "Isolated Sleep paralysis, vivid dreams, and
    geomagnetic influence: II Perceptual And Motor Skills, 1997, 85,

    15) [4]http://es1.multimax.com/~gtdb/galilee/eq.html

    [7]Shakti - Magnetic Brain Stimulation
    [8]Deja Vu           [9]Darwinian Reincarnation

    [10]Consciousness    [11]Romantic Love and the Brain

    [12]Origins of spirituality in Human Evolution
    [13]Sacred Lands     [14]"The Sensed Presence"

    [15]Glasses For Enhanced Visual Acuity
    [16]God in the Brain [17]Spiritual Aptitude Test

    [18]Stimulating My BrainAs A Spiritual Path
    [19]Inventing Shakti [20]Sex_and States of Consciousness

    [21]The Gay Male Brain - Evolutionary Speculations
    [22]Visions          [23]The Spiritual Personality

    [24]Enlightenment And the Brain
    [25]Archetypes       [26]A Diet For Epileptics?

    [27]Odd Experiences - Online Poll Results
    [28]Brain_News       [29]Out-Of-Body Experiences

    [30]Near-Death Experiences - Thai Case histories
    [31]The Big Bang     [32]Meditations from Brain Science

    [33]Near-Death Experiences in Thailand - Discussion
    [34]Downloads        [35]The Terrorist Brain

    [36]Publications by Dr. M.A. Persinger
    [37]Credentials      [38]Hippocrates on Epilepsy


    2. mailto:brainsci at jps.net
    3. http://tinyurl.com/4b3y9
    4. http://es1.multimax.com/~gtdb/galilee/eq.html
    7. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/winshakti/index.htm
    8. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/dejavu.htm
    9. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/rebirth.htm
   10. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/consciousness.htm
   11. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/romance.htm
   12. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/deathanxiety.htm
   13. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/earthfee.htm
   14. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/sp.htm
   15. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/evaglasses.htm
   16. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/god.htm
   17. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/anchored_TL_test.htm
   18. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/me_myTL.htm
   19. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/neuromag.htm
   20. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/sex_ascs.htm
   21. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/gaybrain.htm
   22. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/Visions.htm
   23. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/traits.htm
   24. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/moksha.htm
   25. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/archetypes.htm
   26. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/ketogenic.htm
   27. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/pollresults.htm
   28. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/brain_news.htm
   29. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/obe.htm
   30. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/bkknde.htm
   31. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/bigbang.htm
   32. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/neuromed.htm
   33. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/thaindes.htm
   34. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/downloads.htm
   35. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/terrorism.htm
   36. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/Persinger_pubs.htm
   37. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/credentials.htm
   38. http://www.innerworlds.50megs.com/hippocrat.htm

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