In the recent healthymemory blog post, “A Single Shifting Mega-Organism,” Syndrome E (E stands for evil) was briefly discussed. Syndrome E was developed to describe the atrocities, mass-killings, genocides such as the holocaust and the killings by ISIS. The neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried describes these atrocities as examples of Syndrome E. He defined the following seven symptoms of Syndrome E:
Compulsive repetitive violence
Rapid desensitisation to violence
Flat emotional state
Separation of violence from everyday activities
Obedience to an authority
Perceiving group members as virtuous
Having decided that neuroscience has come a long way since his original paper in 1997 (Syndrome E in The Lancet, Volume 150, No. 9094, p1845-1847) Fried organized a conference in Paris earlier this year to revisit the concept. Highlights of this conference were published in the New Scientist, November 14-20, 2015 in a feature by Laura Spinney.
Fried’s theory starts with the assumption that people normally have an aversion to harming others. If this is correct, the higher brain overrides this instinct in people with Syndrome E. So how might this occur.
The lateral regions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) are sensitive to rules from the newer parts of the brain. The medial region of the PFC receives information from the limbic system, a primitive part of the brain that processes emotional states and is sensitive to our innate to preferences. An experiment using brain scanning was designed to put these two parts of the brain in conflict. Both these parts of the PFC were observed to light up. People followed the rule but still considered their personal preference showing that activity in the lateral PFC overrode the personal preference. The idea here is in the normal brain the higher brain overrides signals coming from the primitive brain. However, in the pathological brain with Syndrome E, the primitive brain prevails.
Fried suggests that people experience a visceral reaction when they kill for the first time, but some become rapidly desensitized. And the primary instinct not to harm may become more easily overcome when people are “just following orders.” Unpublished research using brain scans has shown that coercion makes us feel less responsible for our actions. Although coercion can cause people to take extraordinarily actions (see the healthy memory blog post “Good vs. Evil”), there are individuals who are predisposed to violence who are just awaiting an opportunity.
Unfortunately, the question remains as to how to prevent people from joining such radicalized groups. Research in this area is just beginning and much more needs to be done (See the healthy memory blog post,”Why DARPA is studying stories”). Being a neuroscientist, it is not surprising that Fried thinks that we should use our growing neuroscientific knowledge to identify radicalization early, isolate those affected and help them change. We wish him, and hopefully many others in this effort.
What is not mentioned in this article is that it can be advantageous for one group to adopt Syndrome E to take from or to take advantage of another group. Consider North America. Syndrome E was involved in vacating Native American lands for Europeans. Moreover, up until the Civil War, blacks were enslaved and slavery was a key component of the economy of the United States. I sometimes ponder how would North America been settled by Europeans had we the moral and ethical standards of today.
© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.