The Prefrontal Cortex and Violent Jihadists

We have a more highly developed prefrontal cortex than any other species. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of logic, analysis, problem solving, good judgment, planning for the future, and decision-making. Unfortunately, our prefrontal cortex is not fully mature until we are well into our twenties, so there is time, perhaps even too much time, in which to make poor decisions. Not surprisingly the prefrontal cortex is frequently called the central executive, or CEO of the brain. There are extensive two-way connections between the prefrontal cortex and virtually every other region of the brain, so it is in a unique position to schedule monitor, manage, and manipulate almost every activity we undertake. These cerebral CEOs are highly paid in metabolic currency. Clearly, understanding how they work and how they get paid can help us to use our time more effectively.

It might be surprising to learn that most of prefrontal cortex’s connections to other brain regions are not excitatory, but inhibitory. One of the greatest achievements of the human prefrontal cortex is that it provides impulse control and the ability to delay gratification. Without this impulse control, it is unlikely that civilizations would have developed. And I can’t help speculating how there might be fewer wars, crime, and substance abuse if the prefrontal cortex were more fully engaged.

As the prefrontal cortex does not reach maturity in most of us until our mid-twenties (although it continues to develop into our forties), there is ample time to ruin our lives. During this period we must decide what we want to pursue in life and to start devoting resources to achieve our goals. Skipping or providing short shrift to education, unwanted pregnancies, premature marriages, or committing criminal or immoral acts can result. This is not to suggest that we are victims of our prefrontal cortex and are not responsible for these problems. But we do need to bear in mind that although individuals might be legally mature, they are not necessarily biologically mature with respect to important brain maturation.

Reading about young Muslims leaving their families to join ISIS or other terrorists to commit atrocities, and against fellow Muslims no less, is quite puzzling. Some Muslim parents live in fear that their children might leave them to commit atrocities. How can children from good families do such things? Immature prefrontal cortices might be a contributing factor.

I am curious as to whether any research has been done on the corpses of terrorists. Might autopsies reveal pathological or immature prefrontal cortices?

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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