Can the Brain's Hate Circuit Be Rewired?

Can the Brain's Hate Circuit Be RewiredA couple of months ago a blogger called me “a self-taught hate-ologist, a journalist who tracks and reports on the various hermetically sealed world views that pollute public discourse (at their best) and spin out crazy people with grudges and weapons (at their worst).” She was right about what I do, but not so much about what I am.

The New Hate
Purchase at amazon.com > The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right (Vintage)

It’s true that I wrote a book called The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right, and that I’ve contributed articles to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog. I am fascinated to the point of obsession with the hows and whys of hatred, especially programmatic hatreds that lead otherwise ordinary people to commit or condone terrible acts, whether as individuals—a George Zimmerman, say, profiling and shooting a Trayvon Martin—or on an organized basis: Hitler and the death camps; Mao and the Cultural Revolution; the mutual slaughters of the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.

But “-ologists” by definition claim to have a much more comprehensive understanding of their subject than I ever could. I wish I really were a hate-ologist, because until we understand what causes such global hatreds, we won’t be able to find a cure for them.

Hatred isn’t so much an emotion for them as it is an organizing principle. It is as though a circuit in their brains is misfiring, or a pattern-seeking process has gone haywire, causing them to see a greedy Jew, a jihadist Muslim, a homicidal black (or whoever else the object of their obsession may be) hiding behind every lamppost.

And I use the word “cure” quite deliberately, because for all the manifestos that dedicated hatemongers write and publish, for all the “evidence” they collect and post on the Internet, for all the Mein Kampfs and Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Turner Diaries that line the shelves of their libraries, their obsessions present mostly as symptoms of a pathology. Hatred isn’t so much an emotion for them as it is an organizing principle. It is as though a circuit in their brains is misfiring, or a pattern-seeking process has gone haywire, causing them to see a greedy Jew, a jihadist Muslim, a homicidal black (or whoever else the object of their obsession may be) hiding behind every lamppost. You can’t but wonder: If you could find an antidote for that one thing, could you fix everything?

Just this week Derek Black, the 24-year-old son of the White Nationalist leader Don Black—a young man who grew up in the red hot center of a hate movement, and who was publicly groomed to take his place as its leader—publicly renounced his racism. “It has become clear to me,” he wrote in an amazing open letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok, that “there is no way to advocate for white nationalism but by arguing that minorities pose a threat to our supremacy.”

“It is an advocacy that I cannot support,” he continued, “having grown past my bubble, talked to the people I affected, read more widely, and realized the necessary impact my actions had on people I never wanted to harm.” Black described his estrangement from the movement that was his birthright as “a gradual awakening process” that only seems sudden; he acknowledged his long-standing reluctance to “drive a wedge” between himself and his father and his community, but concluded that it was in the “best interests of everyone involved, directly or indirectly, to be honest about my slow but steady disaffiliation from white nationalism.” Let the dead bury the dead, indeed.

Does the younger Black’s conversion provide proof that the hating brain can be rewired? Perhaps it proves just the opposite—that for all the conditioning he had been subjected to, for all his lifelong schooling in the theory and praxis of hatred, his brain had been wired differently from his father’s all along, allowing him to experience a healthy cognitive dissonance as he grew into his independence. Perhaps it demonstrates that if a hard-wired hatred is of an altogether different order, a hatred that is merely learned or imitated can be unlearned. It gives real reason for hope, because as poisonous as hate leaders may be, they lose much of their power to do harm if they can’t hold on to their followers.

The brain does have a “hate circuit,” they found, which involves multiple structures, including some in the cortex and the subcortex, that are important in generating aggressive behavior. It also involves a part of the frontal cortex that has to do with predicting other people’s actions—a critical function when one is preparing to fight.

As a self-taught and strictly amateur hate-ologist, I’ve never had occasion to do this myself, but I have often wondered what would happen if you hooked one of these demagogic haters—Derek Black’s father, for example—up to an MRI machine and watched to see which parts of the brain light up while he listens to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, watches an interracial pornography movie, or reads a few pages of George Lincoln Rockwell’s White Power.

Back in 2008, two neurologists at University College London, Semir Zeki and John Romaya, undertook a similar experiment, wiring up 17 subjects and watching their brains as they looked at a picture of a person they professed to hate. (Personal hate, of course, is not the same thing as the principled group hate of a white supremacist or an anti-Semite; all but one of the subjects, who picked a political figure, chose to look at pictures of an ex-lover or a professional rival.) The scientists presented their findings in a much-discussed paper entitled Neural Correlates of Hate.

The brain does have a “hate circuit,” they found, which involves multiple structures, including some in the cortex and the subcortex, that are important in generating aggressive behavior. It also involves a part of the frontal cortex that has to do with predicting other people’s actions—a critical function when one is preparing to fight. Two of those structures are the right putamen and the medial insula, which are also activated by romantic love. “While it is difficult…to be more precise about the nature of the links…what is not in doubt is that there is, in the behavioural sense, a strong link between [hate and love] and one can easily transmute into the other,” they concluded.

When love is activated, Zeki told Science Daily, “large parts of the cerebral cortex associated with judgment and reasoning become de-activated.” With hate, on the other hand, “only a small zone, located in the frontal cortex, becomes deactivated. This may seem surprising since hate can also be an all-consuming passion, just like love. But whereas in romantic love, the lover is often less critical and judgmental regarding the loved person, it is more likely that in the context of hate the hater may want to exercise judgment in calculating moves to harm, injure or otherwise extract revenge.”

Lovers are swept away by their emotion. Haters are, too—but as often as not, they act and think as though they are coolly rational: They construct theories, they parse evidence, and they discover hidden patterns and grand conspiracies. They are so smart, in other words, that they are downright stupid.

In the next few weeks, I will delve more deeply into this subject, examining the neurology of conspiracy theories, delusions, and extremist thought.

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