Kathleen E.Taylor is a research scientist in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at the University of Oxford. In 2005, she presented her research on brainwashing at the Edinburgh International Science Festival. In response to a question about the future of neuroscience, Taylor said that,
"...one of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated. Someone who has for example become radicalized to a cult ideology - we might stop seeing that as a personal choice; that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance."
In many ways, she said, it could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage. She was quick to point out that it wasn't just obvious candidates like radical Islam she was referring to but the idea that beating children is acceptable. This one statement of hers stood out to me like a light flash. Coming from a Muslim culture where family members would not think twice about hitting, kicking, whipping, humiliating, spitting, etc – all actions that today come under the abuse of children in papers on Child Rights, I couldn't help pondering over the possibility that more than half of the population had some mental disorder, majority of whom were men.
There are accounts and narratives collected over the years which had a central threading theme of violence and abuse sanctioned by culture and religion – a young IT techie settled and married outside who hasn't visited his home for years because of what his father did – humiliated him by stripping him naked and tying him to a pole in the courtyard as a reprimand to some forgettable offense. The trauma was so deep he hasn't spoken to his father for decades and only phones his mother and sister once a while.
A young woman spat into her face by her father because she had not finished her homework, another girl's cherished books torn by a brother because she was seen speaking to a boy, kids locked up in dark rooms, attics for minor trespasses – these daily micro aggressions verbal, nonverbal, snubs, insults, whether intentional or unintentional communicating hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based upon their marginalized group membership such as transgenders, deaf-mutes or the disabled, are a very deep rooted part of Kashmiri culture.
Cautioning the studies which endorse brain supremacy and technologies, which scan or manipulate brains, which can be open to exploitation as any new gadget, Taylor asserts that although they offer chances to improve human dignity, they can't be neutral tools and hence risk abuse. However, considering the state of affairs currently in the world, her work is important especially in the wake of renewed fundamentalism, growing extremism and the tussle between secular forces and primitive mindsets.
In a YouTube video, Taylor went on to explain brainwashing.
"We all change our beliefs of course, we all persuade each other to do things, we all watch advertising, we all get educated and experience religion. Brainwashing, if you like, is the extreme end of that, it's the coercive, forceful, psychological torture type."
In her 2006 book Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, she explored the science behind persuasive tactics of such groups as cults and al Qaeda and further went on to note that brainwashing, though extreme, is part of a "much more widespread phenomenon" of persuasion – that is – how we make people think things that might not be good for them, that they might not otherwise have chosen to think.
I see her research getting validated on the ground with three events that made the news. First was the reaction of a large section of people in Pakistan to the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a police commando who murdered Salmaan Taseer, a liberal Punjab Governor, for seeking reforms in the country's controversial blasphemy laws whom he was guarding. The second was the BBC report 'Why Kashmir's militants have become 'heroes' again?' which explained the renewed phenomenon of young men getting attracted to the 'gun' in popular parlance, in Kashmir Valley as the figures from official agencies show. As per the report, 60 civilians joined militant groups in 2014 and 66 in 2015, up from 28 in 2013. Local militant group Hizbul Mujahideen is also making a comeback – earlier the scene was dominated by Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. It further reiterated that 21-year-old Burhan Wani from South Kashmir's Tral area has been dominating social media with videos that incite youth to take up arms.
A third news report which came out on the same day was about an Uzbek nanny in Russia accused of murdering and then decapitating a little girl in her care. CCTV appeared to show her, dressed in a hijab, walking near a metro station with a head in her hands. Russian media reported that she pulled the head out of a bag and began screaming that she would blow herself up after a police officer asked to see her identity documents. Gulchekhra Bobokulova, a 38-year-old mother of three, spoke to reporters on her way into a Moscow court. Investigators believe she waited for the four-year-old girl's parents to leave the home before killing her, setting the apartment on fire and fleeing.
Taylor hopes to fully understand how certain people devote themselves so counter-intuitively to beliefs that cause such massive social harm. Like in the case of bombers and radicalised neighbours who are arrested when a terror cell is busted, none of their friends or family recognized any signs of brewing malice within them. Much in the same way serial killers are often described as charming or soft-spoken, it seems that certain people’s nature simply veers towards violence and sadism. Perhaps religion, like politics, patriotism, or other broad social platforms, allows people to act out their "Us vs Them" fantasies. It creates an outlet for people’s insatiable desire for conflict.
Perhaps Taylor is correct, and we will soon discover the region of the brain that acts on evil impulses. Perhaps Philip Zimbardo, who partook in some of the most famous psychological experiments regarding the nature of evil is correct, and the social structures around us will always influence our malleable nature as he said in his TED talks. Whenever that happens, it will be too late for the victims of men who execute their own mothers and sisters (news just coming in of Mohammad Asif who had previously murdered his mother four or five years ago, according to police, before being pardoned at the time by his family and set free has now shot dead both his sisters in an apparent “honour killing”) or gays thrown down rooftops like ISIS.