Why Brain Scans Cannot Show That Someone Will Become a Jihadist

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

A recent study claims that brain scans reveal social exclusion makes someone more likely to become a Jihadist. This is a very bizarre claim, way beyond the limits of the technology.

Five days into the new year we made it before the first questionable “brain scans show interesting and topical result that is far beyond their remit or capabilities” headline popped up. Five days. Not even a week. But hey ho, there we go.

This one was the eye-catching/opening “Brain scans show social exclusion creates jihadists, say researchers”, published in the venerable Observer and on the Guardian’s website.

As you might expect, a few people flagged this up to me, with the usual “Is this a thing?” questions. I did an extensive Twitter thread about it given the hour of night (Sunday, 9pm), but for those who prefer a more leisurely/user-friendly read, here’s my position in article form.

Here are my main points/concerns.

Generating results and data from brain scans is easy. Working out what it means, if anything? That’s where it gets tricky

Are the results ‘valid’?

The study behind the headline seems to be largely above board, as far as I can make out. No links to the actual publication are included though, so I have to base my conclusions on what was shared in the article, but there’s no obvious sign of someone trying to make a quick buck or peddle some cynical theory.

All the effects and processes described have a good evidence base behind them. Social exclusion, aka rejection, has long been shown, via brain scans, to cause profound distress for us humans, arguably the most social species of all. Indeed, for many years it was felt that, because it activated the same brain regions that processed the pain response, that rejection was literally painful, but further research and analysis revealed it’s a different, separate, more psychological type of ‘pain’ that rejection causes.

But still, we really don’t like it, at a fundamental level.

The researchers used the Cyberball method, where a virtual ball game is conducted between three players, and the subject then gets excluded from the game. But this procedure is known to produce strong results, where people become resentful and ‘lash out’ at those rejecting them, no matter who they are or how it affects them. Notable results show that African-American subjects still feel pained when by confirmed members of the KKK, and people still feel the aversive response when they’re paid whenever they’re rejected.

And rejection invariably leads to an aggressive response to whomever rejected you.

Point is, I don’t doubt that if you caused subjects with more fundamentalist leanings to experience rejection from those they already disagree with, it’s pretty much a given that they’d show brain activity which suggests they’re more actively hostile to them, and more enthusiastic about their beliefs.

But, this isn’t specific to Muslims and Westerners! You’d probably get the same result if you had die-hard Star Wars fans rejected by Star Trek enthusiasts. I’d put any amount of money on you getting equivalently aggressive (and probably a lot more so), violent attitudes to white men from ‘incel’ communities who experience (virtual) rejection from women.

But, for some weird reason, nobody’s investigating that. Bizarre.

Anyone who wants to take part in a study regarding upper limb elevation, raise your hand

The subject selection

The study managed to find 38 subjects to work with, which isn’t really a great number for a robust, reliable, generalisable set of results that can be applied to wider population. However, it’s about normal for brain scanning studies, which are incredibly long and expensive processes. You work with what you’ve got given the methods available, really. That’s how we progress at the end of the day.

However, in this case the subject’s used caused me to raise a few eyebrows. Based on the information provided I’m not questioning that the methods used to obtain the subjects, but more the qualities of the subjects used.

Essentially, the subjects were men who had “expressed a willingness to engage in or facilitate violence associated with jihadist causes”. This itself is a bit of a head-scratcher, like those jokes about who ticks ‘yes’ on those US customs questionnaires which ask ‘are you a terrorist?’

I don’t know the exact recruitment methods, but ethical standards normally require subjects be told in full who’s behind the research, and this study was apparently part-funded by the US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE! Was this information withheld? If so, serious ethical questions are raised.

In any case, the subjects are apparently men who are ostensibly pro-Jihadi, who are also willing to submit to having their brains scanned (a long process which requires patience and tolerance from subjects) by academics aligned with Western powers?

I admit to being a bit rusty regarding what exactly Jihadists believe, but these do seem to be somewhat opposing tendencies, right?

I’m not saying the researchers necessarily had to use deception or trickery to find such people, because humans hold completely contrary positions all the time. I’d just say that such people are not good representations of the population you’re hoping to study (jihadists), so any data obtained from them is data you should take with a massive pinch of salt before publishing sensationalist headlines about it.

But as we know, it’s already way too late for that

Back in the 1800s, brain scans had to be done with charcoal on paper. Took bloody ages.

The limits of brain scanning

Finally, this study (or more accurately, the reporting of it) once again exaggerates what brain scans are capable of doing or showing.

Brain scans CAN show that parts of the brain associated with pain and discomfort can be more active when someone’s rejected socially. They can also show that certain subjects or views being raised, e.g. building more mosques without restriction, can trigger a strong positive response in the brain. Do a before and after scan, you can show that those positive responses have increased, after being rejected by your ‘opponents’ who would disagree with those subjects.

But… that’s pretty much all they can say here. They don’t tell you that subjects are any more or less likely to commit acts of terrorism. It implies that this is more likely, but then you’d have to incorporate copious social and relationship and personality factors if you want a definitive answer. In short, you’re never going to be ‘certain’ enough to justify such bold headlines.

It’s an example I used in my book The Happy Brain (you should buy it, it’s good); brain scans are like trying work out who’s the biggest fan of the latest popstar by going to a sold out stadium gig and studying the crowd to see who’s screaming the loudest.

Many scream at different times, for different reasons. Some have just screamed and are now tired, some are just naturally louder than others. Some prefer ballads to dance numbers.

So, say if you did find a particularly loud fan, who was a redhead who screamed most during a ballad, you couldn’t then say “redheads are more romantic”, because that’s a wild leap compared to what the information you’ve got really shows.

Overall, I actually don’t have any real ‘problem’ with the study here per se, although I could if I knew all the details. But I don’t think I’ll ever stop having a problem with this type of reporting.

Dean Burnett’s book The Happy Brain is available now.   

Featured image via Cardiff University

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Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, author and stand up comedian. He is the author of the international best -sellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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