The limbic system and how to prevent it from making you join ISIS: part 2

So here we are: limbic system part 2. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out part 1. I’ll wait.

That info dump on the limbic system is all very well. But why does the limbic system want me to join ISIS? I hear you cry. And how is it going to make me do it? Here’s how, buddos.

If you have, at any point, existed (and high-fives to anyone who’s reading this and hasn’t) you’ll have encountered someone who wants you to stop listening to everyone else and learn to THINK FOR YOURSELF, DAMMIT! This person will likely be the most gullible person you’ve ever met: they show no critical thinking skills at all when it comes to MLMs, or 9/11 “truth,” or homeopathy, or whatever their dubious belief is. You’ll also probably have been a teenager at some point (high-fives to anyone reading this who is a precocious preteen) and be aware that it is a time when you cast off the shackles of parental thinking, rebel, think for yourself and then go and join ISIS. Or perhaps a gang, or a cult, or you become a really big fan of Jordan Peterson. These are in no particular order. How is it, then, that just at the moment that we’re utterly convinced that we are thinking for ourselves, and that other people are mindless sheep, we should become so totally devoid of all ability to critically evaluate that some of us go as far as becoming Peterson fans? It is, OBVIOUSLY (because this is one of my blog posts after all) a function of the structure of the brain.

You may be expecting me to start off with “here’s the bit of the brain we use to think” but I’m not going to do that. There is no one part of the brain that is used for thinking.(1)

The fabric of thought is connection. It’s something like the London Underground. In order to get to the furthest reaches, you may have to go into the centre and change lines. Then when you go back out in a different direction, you may take a route via somewhere you don’t want to be. At the centre of all of this is the limbic system, fulfilling the role of central London. Unlike with the underground, however, each time you go to a new place you have to build the track as you go. The brain is a very expensive organ to run, and it generally prefers not to work hard, so this can make you a little grumpy. But each time you go along that track you add a little something to it to make it run more smoothly, and to make it less difficult to go next time. These connections that are hard to make, that go out to the furthest reaches of the brain and pull things together, are what you need in order to think, and using them is what thinking really is. If you don’t go outside of central London, you may actually find that you’re meeting your basic needs. But there’s a lot you won’t get to see, people you won’t be able to befriend, and life can become frustrating.

You don’t have to go to university to learn to think. We should be clear on that point. But university is an excellent place if you do want to learn to think. You’ve probably heard someone say that there’s no point in going to university because they’re just going to tell you what a load of dead people thought, and that’s not going to teach you anything about how to THINK FOR YOURSELF, DAMMIT. Why should you waste your time writing essays about John Locke’s ideas anyway?

Because it will teach you how to THINK FOR YOURSELF, DAMMIT. (2)

Let’s look at how universities generally run this teaching of old dead guy ideas. When I was a student, it consisted of reading some books and making notes, going to a seminar to discuss what it had said in the book, writing an essay that explored the issues or argued a point, occasionally doing a presentation, and sometimes taking an exam. Each time not just learning the idea, but examining it, criticising it, and putting it in the context of other ideas. If you study a humanities or social science subject, or even many arts subjects, this is going to be the approach. Science obviously works a little differently, but it should also teach you how to think and how to evaluate evidence. And what’s critical here is that it’s not the knowledge of what these dead guys said that is of importance, but the connections you can make about them in the brain. You want those lines to go into the frontal cortex, because that’s where the magic happens. And by magic I mean logic, abstract thought, and all those things that make us different from other mammals. Years down the line, you may have entirely forgotten everything that John Locke thought (ahem) but you haven’t forgotten how to think. It’s a process that gets easier each time you do it. Crucially, this is not a brainwashing process. You aren’t supposed to agree with every last thing that you’re taught about. In fact, you can’t, because a lot of the time you’re going to be doing “compare and contrast” assignments where you examine two thinkers who directly disagree with each other. When people get angry about the “biased liberal SJW nonsense” of university courses, I often think that they don’t understand this point. If you study Politics, Economics, History, International Relations, Sociology or Philosophy, you’re probably going to learn a little bit about Marx. Not because your university is trying to turn you into a Marxist, but because you can’t understand these things if you don’t understand the impact that Marx has had on the world. You wouldn’t want to find yourself, a few decades down the line – having made an international name for yourself by calling everything you don’t like “neo-Marxist” – caught in the awkward situation of never having read a single original work by Marx and quickly cramming the Communist Manifesto so that you have something to say in a debate.

I haven’t got onto the subject of ISIS yet, so you may be thinking I’ve let you down, I’ve let the internet down, I’ve let the guys who compile the FBI watch lists down, and I’ve let myself down. Nearly there though. You see, the prefrontal cortex is a late bloomer. It’s not fully matured until the age of about 25, and this has significant implications for younger people. So much useful stuff relies on the prefrontal cortex. Not just the ability to understand (insofar as anybody understands it) quantum mechanics. Good judgement, self control, impulse control, future planning and context-specific decision making are all based within the frontal cortex. Without a cortex that’s fully online, a person can be prone to rash decisions, risk taking and immediate gratification. Sounds… a bit like many teenagers, right?

And it’s not just teenagers, either. With the frontal cortex being, as the name suggests, at the front of the brain, it can be easily damaged. Car accidents, falls, punches, and sporting injuries can easily give the frontal cortex a good knock about. Even if the person appears to be fully recovered from this injury, effects on their behaviour can linger. In the non-incarcerated US population, about 8.5% of people have had some kind of traumatic brain injury, and 2.2% are currently disabled by it. In the prison population, the proportion of people who’ve had at least one incident of TBI can be as high as 60%.  There’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation, of course. If you’re already a reckless, violent person, you’re more likely to get punched or crash a car. Nonetheless, this is a slightly disconcerting reminder that we are our brains, and if something isn’t working properly, it has real consequences.

Meanwhile, the ages of about 13-23 are the golden age of the limbic system. Emotions are on overdrive. The sense of what is good and beautiful runs strong during this time, but so does our grasp of the terrifying and abhorrent. Anybody who says “you’re 16. You can’t possibly be in love. At that age you don’t know what it means to be in love” is an idiot who has probably forgotten what it feels like to be 16. If Romeo and Juliet were 30 the story would not have worked at all. Nobody loves like a teenager. Of course the flipside of this is that, because the frontal cortex is not fully developed, teenagers may feel love, but they are generally pretty bad at figuring out what makes for a good, stable romantic relationship that will make both parties happy. Raw chemistry is nothing close to an indicator that you can live together in peaceful harmony.

The frontal cortex is developing even as the limbic system is ruling the show, which is why 18-21 is a pretty good time to go to university and have your frontal cortex trained up to work for you. The reason why it develops so late is that, being responsible for context-specific actions, it relies on, well… contexts. On building you into the shining beacon of your culture and society that you want to be. Earlier in life, you don’t have all the knowledge you need to put that stuff together. In that 13-22 period, people tend to become interested in how the world works, and their place in it. They exude compassion and enthusiasm, but they lack critical thinking. And they’re full of frustration that you haven’t yet LEARNED TO THINK FOR YOURSELF, DAMMIT, because it’s so obvious. Do you remember being 15, and making someone sit down and listen to a song because it was so incredible that you couldn’t imagine anyone not instantly loving it as much as you do? And being bewildered when that person just… didn’t really care? Music is subjective, of course, but when it comes to facts… obvious is the enemy of accurate.

If you’ve taken note of the kind of people who join ISIS, you may be amazed at how young they are. Sensible parents are stunned when they learn that their beloved 15 year old kid has run away to do something phenomenally stupid. But it’s no accident that recruiters for cults, gangs, paramilitary movements and Jordan Peterson rely on that period of intense feelings, isolation and a need for meaning and belonging in the world. If you can find a teenager in this state and give them the sense of love and purpose that they need, you can persuade them to take the whole deal. It also helps if you offer them the very thing that they’re worried they lack. For a kid in poverty, it might be money and status if they join the local gang. For someone who has always felt like an outsider because of their faith, it may be the sense that they are part of a grand purpose and that faith is a tremendous gift that can change the world. For a sad middle class white boy who is annoyed because people like him used to get all the power but are now being expected to share some of it with women and people of colour and even the goddamn queers, it may be the argument that he should be in charge because lobsters do this thing and (descent into unscientific gibberish). It isn’t that these arguments are logical. The kid who joins the gang ends up dead at 21; the young girl who runs to Syria becomes a sex slave; and seriously, dammit, I cannot overstate the extent to which the lobster argument makes absolutely no sense.

But the point here is that the arguments are compelling, not credible. They feel like a solution to the problems. And when they’re presented to you by someone you’d love to emulate, it feels as though a bit of that person’s awesomeness rubs off on you. Limbic system thinking is easy, natural, and dangerous, for several reasons:

  • You are especially vulnerable to cognitive bias and logical fallacies. We all struggle with these. We’re more likely to believe things if we want them to be true, for example, or if they flatter us. We’re more likely to believe evidence that reinforces our already-held beliefs and dismiss the stuff that doesn’t. Absolutely everyone has these vulnerabilities, including the cleverest among us. The only way to overcome them is to acknowledge that your thoughts are an unreliable narrator to reality. And as with the “YOU JUST FOLLOW WHAT YOU’RE TOLD AND HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO THINK FOR YOURSELF” argument, if you’re completely convinced that this is a problem for others but not for you, it is DEFINITELY a problem for you.
  • You’re more likely to accept information based on how you feel about the person delivering it. This is the mechanism behind “love is blind” thinking. Your friends may be tearing their hair out each time your boyfriend lies and you believe him, but it’s so plausible because of how you feel.
  • You may end up developing feelings for the person who delivers the information. They’re so brilliant. Everything they say rings true. This is why young people often develop feelings for lecturers, religious leaders, therapists and so on.

This stuff stems from the temporal lobe, which is the location for many of the parts of the limbic system. What does the temporal lobe do? One way to answer that is to consider what happens when someone develops temporal lobe epilepsy. A big random electric storm sweeps through the temporal lobe, and some odd things occur. Often feelings of love and devotion, intense religious experiences, and new ideas for running the world can overwhelm a person. It can make you lose all sense of yourself and believe that “we are all one. One great being that radiates with the love of God” or some such thing. Everything can seem so… damn… obvious.

There is such a thing as “temporal lobe personality” which occurs when someone has regular low level seizures in the temporal lobe. These may not look like the epileptic seizures we’re all familiar with, where someone has convulsions and loses consciousness. They may simply lose time, get confused for a period, and then return to normal. But often there is a distinct pattern of effects from this disorder.

  • The person becomes very serious and humourless
  • They develop an intense interest in religion, which may involve a complete overhaul of their beliefs. This doesn’t necessarily mean religiosity, although it often does. Sometimes they may go to the opposite extreme and want to tell you, at great lengths, all the failings of religion.
  • They have a feeling that everything is connected to everything else, even if these connections seem a bit odd from a logical perspective, and become irate when others don’t see how obvious it all is.
  • They become very verbose. They feel a need to write, constantly, to tell people their ideas, and to ramble.

Wait… Jordan Peterson, is that you?

I’m really not here to tell you that religious people are deluded or stupid or mad. There are plenty of people about who’ll do that. I don’t know if there’s a God. If there is, this may very well be the receptor they use. Who knows?

But there is a credible (albeit unfalsifiable) hypothesis that St Paul experienced a massive temporal lobe seizure on the road to Damascus. It checks out: he was struck blind and then had a hallucination, which would suggest a disturbance in the visual cortex. That’s not in the temporal lobe, but it’s close and well connected. Then he completely overhauled his religious beliefs, became extremely humourless and opinionated, and wrote a ton of letters to everybody that would persuade people for the next two thousand years that The Gays Are Just The Worst.

Religion is associated with the nucleus accumbens, which is a major reward centre, within the limbic system, that is also important to falling in love. Which means that all those sappy “Jesus is my boyfriend” type worship songs kind of make sense, neuroanatomically speaking, even though they remain creepy. And sometimes hilarious. Exercise this part of the brain and you will be at risk of relating to information at an intensely emotional level.

Let’s assume you’re a cult leader, or Jordan Peterson. But I repeat myself. How do you persuade people that you’re some kind of incredible godlike figure? Well you absolutely avoid the process with the seminars and reflection and arguments. You don’t want people to think. You want them to believe.

You talk to people in a way that makes them think “wow this person is smart.” Note that what you say doesn’t really have to make sense. The people you’re talking to aren’t supposed to analyse, criticise, or necessarily even understand it. You don’t direct them to look at secondary sources. There isn’t any need for those people to go, read, and actually understand Marx, Foucault, Jung or the Bible. You understand it for them. In fact, you may not really understand it at all. But if you misappropriate or misrepresent the thoughts of lots of smart people, it looks like you’re really, really smart. And also that the people your fans respect, like Dostoyevsky, all agree with you, while the people they don’t respect, like Marx, are idiots, and the people who do agree with them are also idiots. You use videos to connect with people who don’t really read much, but do like videos.

All the while you’re nudging at the things they want to believe; you’re pushing away at their cognitive bias. It makes absolute sense to this frustrated young white man to believe that men like him should be in charge, that women are asking to be harassed in the workplace. It’s all connected in this weird, rambling outlook that includes chaos dragons and historical figures and “chaos is represented by the feminine and I don’t care if you don’t like it that’s just the way it is” as though that’s any kind of verifiable fact.

I’ve encountered a fair number of Jordan Peterson fans, and the thing that shows me that they’re not really thinking at all is that they don’t really know how to discuss his ideas. They don’t know how to grab any single thing that he unambiguously stands for. There isn’t really an unambiguous thing that he stands for, because he backtracks and obfuscates at every opportunity. What his fans will tend to tell you is to watch this video and it’ll all make sense.

Really. Can the fan summarise the video? No. He can’t. He is assuming that if you watch this video, you’ll feel the same way that he does about it. It’s very like the 15 year old and the song. And if you aren’t impressed, there’s an obvious explanation for that. You’re just not smart enough to understand the things he says.

The problem for many of us is that we are smart enough to understand it, and we understand that it’s gibberish. I have a BA in Politics, an MA in Philosophy and Religion, and half a BSc in Life Sciences (long story on that one). I have read the original sources: Marx, Jung, Dostoyevsky and others. I have studied what the Bible actually says and I know when Peterson makes some shit up about it to back up his own view. I know how evolution works.(3)

OK I’ve ranted enough about Peterson now. Let’s talk about ISIS. Actually, let’s talk about the process by which religious belief could lead to someone joining ISIS, or a cult. I’m going to keep it unspecific to any particular religion.

You’re someone who’s young, vulnerable, and disgruntled about how the world works.  A new friend and mentor shows up and bombards you with love and understanding, and a sense of community that you’ve never felt before. Someone finally gets you! Someone who is so, so very smart. You’ve been searching for an overarching narrative about how the universe works, as all young people are prone to do. It’s very easy to take on the idea that religion is the answer. You’ve never been very devout, and your family isn’t either. You don’t really know your way around your holy texts. But that’s okay, because you’ve just met someone who does. Religion whirls its way around the limbic system, and you just know that whatever this person says is right, because they’re loving and smart and they have it all together. And suddenly it’s so obvious. How did you manage not to see this all before? You’re well on your way to total dogmatic belief.

It’s easy to do this with religion. But it is possible to study religion in ways that use more of the brain. It is possible to integrate different regions, to compare, analyse and criticise. And it doesn’t have to be religion. If you look at China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, a similar process took place with the teenage Red Guards, with Mao Zedong as a godlike figure.(4)

So when your new friend gradually starts inching in with the idea that the place you live in is at war with your religion, it makes sense to you. You’ve probably encountered some people being total dickheads about your belief. You’ve probably felt hostility at some level your whole life. Your overarching narrative is now being shaped for you, even as your frontal cortex develops. If you, personally, are especially vulnerable, this new mentor will be able to persuade you to go anywhere.

(1) Incidentally, it’s a total myth that we only use 10% of our brains, and it’s a pretty stupid myth. We pay dearly for having such enormous brains: our big ol’ heads make childbirth much harder for our species than for other mammals, and we have to give birth to babies that are… well, pretty useless. If you compare a newborn human to a newborn foal, you’ll see that the other guy is up on his hooves and running about, learning how to horse, before the day is over. Human babies are just rubbish.

(2) This is not exclusive to John Locke. There are other clever people who’ve lived, and some of them aren’t/weren’t massive flaming racists. I just had to spend a lot of time on Locke myself.

(3) Seriously, his much-touted stuff about lobsters is utter rubbish. Yes, we have a common ancestor. We have a common ancestor with every living thing on earth because that’s how evolution works. Lobster brains do not “run on serotonin, just like ours.” First up: lobsters don’t have brains. They have a small, primitive clump of cells called ganglia, which is a long way from developing into anything you can call a brain. Our brains don’t “run on” serotonin. If anything, you could say they run on electricity. Serotonin is a simple molecule that is in all sorts of organisms, because there are a limited number of neurotransmitters around and they’re all pretty simple. What’s more, all of them do a range of things. Just because you can sometimes alleviate depression by raising serotonin levels, it doesn’t mean that SEROTONIN IS HAPPY CHEMICAL ALL GOOD MAKE BRAIN RUN. If you bombard a nervous system with serotonin, even a lobster’s, yes it will have effects because it’s a weird thing to do. It doesn’t mean that humans are basically like lobsters, or that lobster behaviour has a damn thing to do with human behaviour. Why stop there? We’re just as closely related to black widow spiders, or praying mantises. Does this mean women should kill and eat their partners after sex? I’m going to say no.

(4) The events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution are why I just don’t buy the Dawkinsesque line that if we could just get rid of all the religion in the world, everything would be a big bucket of unicorns. Except not unicorns, BECAUSE UNICORNS AREN’T REAL. BE RATIONAL, CANTATRICE. It’s nonsense. The problem is not that people are religious (and the likelihood is probably that most people will always be religious, because humanity seems to have a need for it). The problem is in the nature of the human brain, and its weakness to this kind of movement which can easily turn bloody.

2 thoughts on “The limbic system and how to prevent it from making you join ISIS: part 2

  1. Cantatrice, your blog will soon be added to our Actually Autistic Blogs List ( Please click on the “How do you want your blog listed?” link at the top of that site to customize your blog’s description on the list (or to decline).
    Thank you.
    Judy (An Autism Observer)


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