Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Human Cruelty

When I was a child I deliberately poured salt on a slug because someone told me it would ‘melt’. I had to know if that was true. And I stood there, horrified, as the unfortunate slug shrivelled up in a hiss of desiccating fluids. On the spectrum of humanity's inhumanity, plotting this harmless garden occupant’s foul end may not register, but I was nevertheless appalled that I had followed through on a nasty impulse. From cruelty's minor variants, such as bullying and domestic abuse, to the extreme, twisted malice that begot the Holocaust and the massacres in Turkey, Cambodia, Tibet, Bosnia, and Rwanda - why does cruelty exist? Do impulses towards sadistic brutality lurk in the depths of every human psyche? Could I be, am I, also cruel? Alas, the answer, according to Oxford Neuroscientist Dr Kathleen Taylor's latest book, is yes.
While writing “Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain”, her research led her to the sad conclusion that the possibility of cruelty, including extreme cruelty, is a part of human nature.
And it seems our cruelty and violence can be rampantly baroque. Humans are staggeringly creative when it comes to hurting and killing other humans. You don’t need to read the Marquis de Sade to know this; you only need to listen to the news, read fiction, watch a film or TV, or learn a little history.
Kathleen’s first chapter opens with a harrowing example of this cruelty: a German army photographer sent to the Lithuanian city of Kovno in 1941 witnessed a young man beat to death about 50 people with an iron crowbar; dragging them one at a time from the condemned group and killing them all within 45 minutes. Onlookers, women and children included, clapped. When he finished, they sang along as he stood on the mountain of corpses playing the Lithuanian national anthem on an accordion.
“Neuroscience has taught me that both cruel behaviour and the motivation to be cruel may be inescapable, in that they arise as a result of how human beings have evolved. To this extent they are 'natural' aspects of what we are,” Kathleen says in a candid interview with Scope.
She flags a simple truth that society at large seems to be unwilling to accept but one that almost all researchers into the subject acknowledge: “Cruelty is not, by and large, the domain of madmen or natural born-evil doers. Rather, much cruel behaviour is rational, that is, it is done for reasons, which seem good to the perpetrators at the time, and done by people like you and me. Even in the most extreme cases perpetrators generally know exactly what they are doing. Some, long after the have had the chance to rethink their views, hold fast to the reasons which motivated them to act.”
Irrational violent harm doing does occur, for instance in homicides committed by psychotic individuals, but we are reluctant to describe such killers as 'cruel' precisely because their reason is so disordered. Kathleen stresses that cruelty implies “deliberation, free choice and moral responsibility”.

The second fundamental tenet in her book is that the difference between someone hurling verbal abuse at an immigrant or someone beating an immigrant to death is a difference of degree, and not a difference in-kind.
Of course, this is not to say that the two are the same, but she proposes that they are features on a continuum of cruelty from the mildest thoughts and behaviour to the most extreme. At one end lies the initial separation of ‘Them’  (The Other, the inferior out-group) from ‘Us’ (the superior in-group).
Its minor implications include stereotypes, prejudices, off-colour jokes and mild verbal abuse directed at out-group members. Moving along the continuum there are more vigorous verbal abuse, hostile and aggressive stereotyping, and then increasing physical violence. “Eventually we reach the spectacular rarities which involve destroying people identified as Them,” Kathleen explains.
She uses the term “Otherisation” to express the sense of creating an increasingly impassable gulf between Us and Them, and enables "us" to treat "them " as Untermenschen.
A research scientist and science writer affiliated with Oxford's Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, Kathleen seeks to describe and define cruelty in this, her second book. She strives to distinguish between callous brutality and sadism, and ground them in the workings of the human brain and evolutionary theory.
“I wrote my book Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain not to lay down the authoritative summary of how things are, but to stimulate research and discussion. I'm a student, with plenty more to learn, who seeks to bring together the fruits of work in psychology, sociology, and my own field of neuroscience to shed light on the nature of cruelty and what makes human beings cruel.
“I understand the possibility of cruelty, including extreme cruelty, to be a part of human nature. There are many risk factors, which make it more likely that someone will be violently cruel, not least among them being young and male. However, most people, in certain circumstances, would probably find themselves behaving cruelly, no matter how well-intentioned they were beforehand,” she maintains.
While researching the book, she identified several conditions that appear to facilitate the emergence of cruel behaviour or convert average citizens into torturers.
“War or war-like situations is the obvious example. In general, two conditions are necessary: the cruel behaviour must be rewarded - for example by financial gain or the approval of friends or bosses - and there must be a significant difference in power to enable the cruelty to occur without much likelihood of prevention or reprisal. That power difference needn't necessarily be a matter of physical force; it can relate to how many allies the perpetrator and victim can draw upon, for instance.”
As cruelty is, basically, about action, to understand what makes people cruel Kathleen also explored the source of cruelty, and every other human behaviour: our own nervous systems. What is the sensorimotor alchemy that can turn a vicious idea into a vicious action?
In one of the most technically difficult chapters in her book, Kathleen suggests that the metaphor of brains as computational storage devices, soggy PCs, is misleading. Instead of mental ‘hardcopy’, what we have is a causal connection that results, on the whole, in similar neural patterns when we perceive similar events. These neural patters in turn tend to generate similar behavioural responses.
Contrary to popular myth, everything that makes us human is not necessarily done by the prefrontal cortex, and that includes making choices. Unlike a leisured person motivated to explore alternatives, the pressured individual will make more use of the strongest networks available, paying less attention to weaker, conflicting ones. He or she will be less likely to override initial impulses, more likely to disregard information about consequences or moral prohibitions, and more likely to show stereotyped behaviour and react aggressively.
In addition, she argues that activating part of a neural pattern increases the likelihood of activating all of it. “Even mild Otherisation primes people for aggression….To think about doing something cruel is to take a step along the Otherising path which leads to cruel behaviour. Whether the next step is taken depends on how the person reacts to the thought of being cruel,” she writes.
Essentially, she says that if these cruel thoughts are unchallenged, if there is “little interneural discussion”, the thought’s underlying neural pattern will tend to strengthen, and when next activated the person will be that little bit more likely to cross the threshold into verbal expression etc. If, on the other hand, the thoughts trigger unpleasant feelings the resultant neural conflict will prompt inhibitory signals from other brain regions to block the flow until the conflict is resolved.

“Like bad habits, viciousness is most easily halted early on,” she surmises. “Because related actions are represented by overlapping patterns in the brain, repeated activation of even mild Otherisation makes even more extreme behaviour easier to trigger.”
This, she adds, would explain why people used to violent cultures, like gang members or the Khmer Rouge cadres, kill for, in our view, tiny and trivial reasons. Otherisation and social acceptance of violence have lowered the threshold required to trigger murderous aggression.
A key argument of her book is that, in understanding cruelty, morality matters. The moral codes, which reward and punish us, lay down the neural patters that serve to inhibit our cruelty and boost our kindness – sometimes.
She tells Scope that, in general, science approaches this issue of cruelty, when it does so at all, analytically, trying to break down cruel behaviour and its causes into distinct components. Religion tends to focus on the moral aspects of cruelty rather than on understanding its mechanisms.
“Forensic psychiatry shows the clash between two world views clearly. On the one hand, we have the moral view, which emphasises the responsibility, motivation and free will of perpetrators as 'persons', wishing to punish violent perpetrators more as their actions are judged more cruel.
“On the other hand, the scientific view tends to focus not on questions of motivation but on the causes and mechanisms underlying the behaviour, to the extent that sometimes the person underneath almost seems to vanish.
“Although I am not a forensic psychiatrist, I would venture to say that the scientific understanding of such behaviour is not yet so advanced that psychiatrists can treat it effectively. More is known about how such extreme cruelty can arise. In other words, prevention may be more feasible than treatment.”
Kathleen confides that she was drawn to the topic of cruelty for two reasons. Firstly, when writing her previous book, Brainwashing, the question of motivation kept arising: why would people want to inflict this kind of psychological torture on others? Secondly, she wanted to understand what makes people cruel “because I couldn't help hoping that this would help, in some small way, to reduce the amount of cruelty in the world”.
Having immersed her self in this difficult subject for her research, she admits that it left her with an uneasy view of humanity and “our tendency to barbarism”, but she adds that any unpleasantness encountered as a result of writing the book was as nothing compared with what the victims she was writing about endured before they died.
“Cruelty was very difficult indeed to write, and I feel it has left me more fearful and pessimistic. My agent says it has made me ill; however, speaking as a scientist I don't have enough data to comment on that!” she laughs uneasily.
Having emerged on the other side of this journey into cruelty, Kathleen believes that that humankind would be better advised to try and manage cruelty than to try and eliminate it.
“Neuroscience has also taught me that understanding how brains work, while it may help us eventually to 'treat' cruelty more directly, is not a necessary prerequisite for reducing cruelty. We don't have to wait; there is much that can be done now. Human brains are immensely changeable, and much more influenced by their situations than we often realise, so changing the situations can change the brain and make behaviour more, or less, likely to occur.”
But will we do it?
Kathleen’s own opinion is that any changes we manage to make will be minor, slow, and grossly inadequate to the task at hand. If intelligence and knowledge were all that were required we could begin ensuring less cruelty tomorrow, but we also need the wisdom, courage and the will to change. Until then, Kathleen says we remain at risk: of suffering cruelty and of being cruel.

Brainwashing: the science of thought control

Ever since the Korean War, when it was first coined, the idea of brainwashing has fascinated, baffled, frightened, and appalled us. Around the world people are being pressured, deceived, or persuaded into adopting beliefs which are extremely and obviously harmful to them and to others. How does this thought control happen, and how can we resist it?
Dr Kathleen Taylor’s Brainwashing (Oxford University Press, 2004) is the first book to apply modern neuroscience to the topic of thought control. It combines psychology, history and cultural studies with cutting-edge brain research and case studies ranging from modern-day cults to sixteenth-century England. 

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