Posts Tagged ‘Syndrome E’

Syndrome E

November 27, 2015

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
Obsessive beliefs
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  Unpublished research using brain scans has shown that coercion makes us feel less responsible for our actions.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.

A Single Shifting Mega-Organism

November 19, 2015

A single shifting mega-organism is how Dr. Eagleman describes our species in “The Brain.”  He does this because we are a social species, and an enormous amount of brain circuitry has to do with other brains.  Consequently  we have a new field of research, social neuroscience.  I would add that our shifting mega-organism includes not only the living, but also the dead.  Through the artifacts of technology, we can can learn from those who have passed away.  Information resident in technology and in our fellow human beings comes under the general rubric of transactive memory.

Throughout our lives, our brain circuitry decodes the emotions of others based on extremely subtle facial cues.  Research has shown that people viewing a photo of a smile or a frown, produced short periods of electrical activity  that indicated that their own facial muscles were moving, effectively mirroring the smile or frown that they were viewing.

There is a pain matrix in the brain where pain is processed.  The precipitating event activates different areas of the brain operating in concert to produce the feeling of pain.  When you watch someone in pain, the parts of your pain involved in the emotional experience of pain are also activated.  This provides the basis for empathy.  You literally feel the other person’s pain.  We are able to step out of our shoes and into the shoes of another, neurally speaking.  Empathy is an important skill.  Having a better grasp of what someone is feeling gives a better prediction about what they’ll do next.  This is true of social pain as well as physical pain.  Social pain activates the same brain regions as physical paint.

If empathy worked all the time, then we would be a much more functional species.  Unfortunately  this single shifting mega-organism  exhibits warfare between and sometimes among different parts.  Outgroups are identified for violence even when those outgroups are defenseless and pose no threat.  This violence has occurred throughout recorded history and likely before history was recorded.  Starting in 1915 more than a million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Turks (accurately portrayed in the movie “The Cut”).  The Japanese invaded China and killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians in 1937.  Then there was the infamous German killing of many millions of Jews in the holocaust during World War 2.  In 1994 the Hutus in Rwanda killed 800,000 Tutsis, many with machetes.  Between 1992 and 1995 during the Yugoslavian War over 100,000 Muslims were slaughtered in violent acts known as “ethnic cleansing.”  In Srebrenica over the course of ten days, 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were shot and killed after the United Nations commanders expelled them from the compound in which they had sought safety.  Women were raped, men were executed, and even children were killed.  Today we regularly see atrocities committed by ISIS.

Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon, has called these atrocities examples of Syndrome E (E for Evil).  Syndrome E is characterized by a diminished emotional reactivity, which allows repetitive acts of violence.  It includes hyperarousal, which is a feeling of elation in doing these acts.  There is group contagion.  Everyone is doing it, and it catches and spreads.   Compartmentalization exists in which one can care about his own family yet perform violence on someone else’s family.   This suggests that this is not a brain-wide change, but instead involves areas involved in emotion and empathy.  So a perpetrators choices are run by the parts of the brain that underlie logic, memory, and reasoning, but not the networks that involve emotional consideration of what it is like to be someone else.  According to Fried, this equates to moral disengagement.  People are no longer using the emotional systems that under normal circumstances steer their social decision making.

So, now we have a name and an explanation.  What is needed is a means of prevention or a cure!

© 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.