[Paleopsych] Inner Worlds: Neurobiology of Religious Terrorism
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Neurobiology of Religious Terrorism
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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
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 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
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
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.
WEEKLY CHURCH ATTENDANCE
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
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
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
Palestinian territories might produce populations with either higher
normal limbic lability, or that their limbic phenomena might show
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",
(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
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between Men & Woman" Laurel Publications, 1991
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As A continum From
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Psychology, Jan 1993, 49 (1) 33-37
6) Persinger, M.A., "People Who report Religious Experiences May Also
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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
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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,
Shakti - Magnetic Brain Stimulation
Deja Vu Darwinian Reincarnation
Consciousness Romantic Love and the Brain
Origins of spirituality in Human Evolution
Sacred Lands "The Sensed Presence"
Glasses For Enhanced Visual Acuity
God in the Brain Spiritual Aptitude Test
Stimulating My BrainAs A Spiritual Path
Inventing Shakti Sex_and States of Consciousness
The Gay Male Brain - Evolutionary Speculations
Visions The Spiritual Personality
Enlightenment And the Brain
Archetypes A Diet For Epileptics?
Odd Experiences - Online Poll Results
Brain_News Out-Of-Body Experiences
Near-Death Experiences - Thai Case histories
The Big Bang Meditations from Brain Science
Near-Death Experiences in Thailand - Discussion
Downloads The Terrorist Brain
Publications by Dr. M.A. Persinger
Credentials Hippocrates on Epilepsy
2. mailto:brainsci at jps.net
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