Mass Violence can be Understood at Some Level, But It Seems That Fighting Fire With Fire May be the Only Practical Solution.

In last week’s article, The Trouble with Pacifists, we highlighted the perils of a silent majority, unwilling to rise up and take action against history’s most deadly movements—particularly in instances where the initiators of mass murder had broadcast their intentions prior to taking power. This week we seek to further explore how such atrocities can occur amid generally non-violent societies.

Mao Zedong, (the communist ruler of China from 1949-1976 ) decided that approximately 50,000,000 people would need to be eliminated in order for his vision of China to be realized. While Zedong may have been the architect of large scale mass murder, he was not, in fact, the chief executioner. It order to kill the roughly 70,000,000 Chinese citizens who perished under the regime, many individuals had to partake in violence. So my question became, how do neighbors, colleagues, friends and soldiers become people who would murder their fellow citizens—often in particularly brutal fashion?

In the wake of the large scale massacres in Bosnia and Rawanda, Doctor Itzak Fried MD, PhD, a widely recognized expert in the field of neurological surgery, put it this way, “It’s time to ask uncomfortable questions about the brain mechanisms that allow ‘ordinary’ people to turn violent.”

Over the next two decades Fried sought to describe the switch in behavior in medical terms which he branded ‘Syndrome E’ (E standing for evil).  Fried collaborated with experts in the fields of sociology, history, psychology, and neuroscience, culminating in meetings at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris and naming these conferences The Brains that Pull the Triggers.

The stated mission of the conference is to better understand, “The transformation of groups of previously nonviolent individuals into repetitive killers of defenseless members of society has been a recurring phenomenon throughout history. This apparent transition of large numbers of seemingly normal, ‘ordinary’ individuals, to perpetrators of extreme atrocities is one of the most striking variants of human behavior, but often appear incomprehensible to victims and bystanders and in retrospect even to the perpetrators themselves and to society in general.”

Experts at the conference were quick to quell doubts that defining mass violence as a syndrome could diminish accountability for the perpetrators and debated the merits regarding the medicalization of a social problem. Their stated purpose of such a designation was not to medicalize an abhorrent form of human behavior, but rather provide a framework for the multidisciplinary study in effort to provide insights which may lead to early detection and prevention.

A summary of the findings of the first conference in April 2015 are as follows*:


Individuals expressing the syndrome show obsessive ideation, compulsive repetition, rapid desensitization to violence, diminished affective reactivity, hyper arousal, group contagion, and failure to adapt to changes in stimulus- reinforcement associations. A pathophysiological model — “cognitive fracture” — was hypothesized, where hyper-aroused medial prefrontal cortices tonically inhibit the amygdala and are no longer regulated by visceral and somatic homoeostatic controls ordinarily supplied by subcortical systems. Thus, the syndrome is a product of neocortical development rather than the manifestation of a disinhibited primitive brain. The acts performed by the perpetrators are not haphazard acts of violence performed at the “heat of battle”, but repetitive automatized acts performed with affective flatness and desensitization, which have an uncanny need for mechanization and repetition that dehumanize both victims and perpetrators.


In more common terms, the findings suggest that the prefrontal cortex, not the primitive brain, is responsible for this type of violence, because it is no longer heeding the normal controls from subcortical areas. The ‘cognitive fracture’ occurs when the normal gut aversions to harming others, the emotional disgust of such acts, become disconnected from a hyper-aroused prefrontal cortex. In short, specific parts of the prefrontal cortex become hyperactive and dampen the activity of the amygdala, which regulates emotion.

But if mass murder happens because of activity in the brain, what does that lead us to conclude about personal responsibility?

Perpetrators of repeated killings have demonstrated the capacity to reason and to solve problems. Take for example the Nazi’s  ‘Final Solution”—an implementation of how to effectively and practically kill and dispose of many people rapidly. Proposing the existence of a syndrome does not absolve murders of responsibility when they exhibit the capacity to think logically—however gruesome the thoughts.

Lasana Harris, an experimental psychologist from the University of London, who studies hostilities between social groups, has used MRI and EEG to illustrate how ‘ordinary’ people can suppress their social-brain cognitive network, so that ‘enemies’ could be perceived as dehumanized objects, rather than people, and thus detached from emotion.

Fried’s research provides the fundamental understanding and science behind what many have long suspected. When seemingly normal people take on the belief of an ‘us versus them mentality’ the brain begins to objectify people and make them capable of violence on a grand scale.

This is the same rhetoric that radical Muslims use to brand infidels. The violence perpetrated by ISIS members is shockingly brutal and gruesome. In the end, it appears that understanding this type of transformation may not, in any way, lead researchers or individuals any closer to stemming the tide to of mass violence. Rather, it seems the research may be more useful for those seeking to radicalize segments of the population with effective propaganda and conditioning.

In the end, it seems we are left with an understanding, though without any resolution. And as an individual Kravologist, I’d strongly suggest you keep training, as the reasons for violence are irrelevant in the moment you are fighting for your life. So, let the ‘Brains’ conferences march on, without a cure or a resolution to violence, I’ll see you on the mats or on the range.
*The second Brains that Pull the Trigger conference was held in May 2016, though no summarization of findings are yet available.

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