Hate, Trump, and the Human Brain

When Lady Gaga proclaimed from the rooftop “Liberty and Justice for All,” at the beginning of the half-time show of Super Bowl 51, I forgot for a moment all the ugliness happening before and after the Presidential Election of 2016. Especially ugly is the fact that hate crimes increased soon after Trump was elected president.

While the horrid instances of hate crimes continue, it is true, only a small minority of Americans are responsible for hate crimes. This got me thinking. Why only some people hate others so much that they want to commit violence against them? Or, why many people aren’t driven so much by hate? Is there something different in the brain of “haters”? I decided to find out.

Research by scientist Semir Zeki and his colleagues in University College London suggests that there is “hate circuitry” in the brain. What they have found is that when people are shown images of others whom they hate, certain parts of the brain are active. In the human brain, nerve cells are connected to each other in “circuits” much like the electric wires in a house are organized in circuits. For example, in a house, one electrical circuit regulates the supply of electricity to the stove in the kitchen while another controls the flow of electricity to the refrigerator. Similarly, the nerve cell circuits do different jobs in the brain. Some circuits control the movement of body parts while others put together images of the world based on the information coming into the brain from the eyes and so on. This idea of circuits in the brain being responsible for specific jobs holds good for even the abstract things such as fear, joy, love, and hate.

To understand why some people hate more than others, scientists have to figure out how the “hate circuitry” is activated in the brain. There isn’t much information available on this. So, an analogy would be helpful. Let’s consider why some people develop severe mental disorders such as psychosis while others don’t. Some individuals, because of the way their brain is wired, may be more susceptible to developing psychosis than others. While with others, it may be because of the environment they grew up in. Many studies have shown that numerous environmental factors contribute to development of psychosis. Going by this analogy, 2016 presidential election campaign created an environment favorable for hate.

If we consider the uptick in hate crimes after the election, or just incidences of hateful remarks, it seems that these were directed against certain groups of people. Let’s examine hatred for two such groups: Mexicans and Muslims. How do people hating these two groups develop hatred against them? It is unlikely that many haters have personal bad experience with Mexicans or Muslims. The obvious conclusion then is that the election campaign demonized these groups. The political rhetoric on the right constantly stoked fear and anger. These outsiders are coming to take our job away, or worse, to kill us. The fact that some of the haters might have experienced economic hardships in recent years must have made them especially susceptible to such emotional manipulation.

The research on brain imaging shows that the part of the “hate circuitry” has to do with generating aggressive behavior and another part is linked to taking action through a part of the brain that controls movements. Even though current research on hate does not tell us how this “hate circuitry” can be activated to an extent to induce violent crime against the hated individual(s), we can draw parallels from development of psychosis. Research has shown that emotion contributes to development and maintenance of delusion and other psychotic behavior. So, the barrage of remarks made by Trump against Mexicans and Muslims likely roused emotion to incite hate and maintain it.

The hatred fueled by political rhetoric is no different from that promoted by fringe groups and terrorist organizations. Groups that commit terrorism in the name of Islam demonize the West. Even homegrown white terrorists in the West demonize the object of their hatred. For example, In July 2011, a Norwegian man called Andres Behring Breivik opened fire on young people who had gathered for the Labor Party’s summer camp and killed 69 people. He said those people were enemies because they were multiculturists and Marxists. It turns out that even though Breivik carried out the attack, many in Norway shared Breivik’s views. In other words, the environment was encouraging to development of extremism.

In the United States, in recent years, racist people used to be relatively quiet and didn’t openly declare their hostility to others. The haters must have exercised restraint because society appeared to be progressive and tolerant. In the brain, the area of the brain that exerts control over emotional brain regions through thinking and reasoning is called the prefrontal cortex (which I described in a previous posting: Brain and the Presidential Election). If the prefrontal cortex is strong and is working the way it should, it will act as a circuit breaker and prevent the hate circuitry goading other parts of the brain into action. But what if the prefrontal cortex thinks hating is OK? That’s most likely what happened. When Trump openly criticized Mexicans and Muslims it was as if the prefrontal cortex of racists relaxed its control on the hate circuitry. Our leader Trump is doing it. It’s perfectly fine for us to hate. An alternative explanation is that some of the haters don’t have a strongly developed prefrontal cortex and the nasty rhetoric could have activated their hate circuitry without much resistance.

Brain research shows that the “hate circuitry” has elements common with “love circuitry” in the human brain. So, our brain can be weaponized to do damage or used as an instrument for the good of fellow humans. The good news is that it is not predetermined. We just have to guard against our brains being manipulated by career politicians or others like Trump who enter politics to fulfill their personal agenda.