What can brain scans of radicalized jihadists tell us about how they react to what they perceive as attacks on their sacred values? In episode 58, we’re joined by Nafees Hamid from Artis International who talks with us about his open access article “Neuroimaging ‘will to fight’ for sacred values: an empirical case study with supporters of an Al Qaeda associate,” published on June 12, 2019 in the journal Royal Society Open Science.


The Neuroscience of Terrorism - Nafees Hamid
The Neuroscience of Terrorism - Nafees Hamid
The Neuroscience of Terrorism - Nafees Hamid The Neuroscience of Terrorism - Nafees Hamid
@rwatkins says:
We wrapped up our conversation by asking Nafees what application the team’s findings may have on future policy or practice aimed at deradicalization.
@rwatkins says:
Doug and I found it striking that the people in this study were able to both be outraged that their peers’ disagreed with them, while simultaneously decreasing in their willingness to fight and die for their cause. We asked Nafees to discuss what he believes the implications of this finding are.
@rwatkins says:
If you learned that members of your community didn’t endorse the same sacred values you did, you’d probably be pretty angry about it. You might even become more recalcitrant in your beliefs. And so, after completing the tasks in the scanner, Nafees and his team were interested in learning if this was so for the study’s participants as well.
@rwatkins says:
In addition to using neuroimaging to monitor the brain activity of participants as they argued for their sacred values, the team was also interested in knowing if they could change those beliefs. So we asked Nafees to tell us how they tested the plausibility of doing so.
@rwatkins says:
Of the 45 people that Nafees and his colleagues recruited into the ethnographic study 30 agreed to participate in the fMRI study. In it, the team recorded the brain activity of participants as they indicated their willingness to fight and die for their values, and as they reacted to their peers ratings for the same values. Nafees shares what he and his team found, after this short break.
@rwatkins says:
Nafees and his colleagues concentrated their analysis on activity in several regions of the brain. We asked him to describe where these regions are located, as well as what makes them relevant to learning why people may have the will to fight for their sacred values.
@rwatkins says:
While Spain has abolished the death penalty, if Nafees’ participants were to actually carry out the jihadist acts that they advocated, they almost certainly would be jailed for life. Or depending on where their acts of terrorism were committed, they could be extradited to a country that does practice capital punishment. So Ryan and I couldn’t help but wonder why they agreed to participate in the study in the first place.
@rwatkins says:
Nafees is also a research fellow with Artis International, a scientific research organization which focuses on the behavioral dynamics that affect conflict. Doug and I were curious to learn if it was there that he developed the skills necessary for engaging strangers in conversation about their radicalist beliefs, then potentially asking them to volunteer to go into an fMRI scanner while they answered questions about those values.
@rwatkins says:
Recruiting subjects for any research project can be one of the most challenging aspects of the study. But recruiting supporters of a radical islamist group in Barcelona – one which the USA, the European Union, and Russia have all designated as a terrorist organization – would seem nearly impossible. Ryan and I asked Nafees just how he went about doing so so.
@rwatkins says:
In the design of their project, Nafees and his colleagues didn’t make use of a control or a comparison group. Doug and I were interested in hearing what led the team to make this decision.
@rwatkins says:
Sacred values are, by definition, deeply held convictions for those that hold them. Nevertheless, people aren’t born with them. Nafees explains how sacred values develop and become such deeply seated convictions.
@rwatkins says:
Since people tend to be unwilling to trade off on their sacred values no matter what the benefits of doing so may be, Doug and I were curious whether sacred values must also necessarily be religious in nature.
@rwatkins says:
Nafees and his colleagues do research on the influence of “sacred values” on the decision-making pf people who hold the kind of radical beliefs that are consistent with those of terrorist organizations. We began our conversation by asking the Nafees how he got interested in this line of research.
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Hosts / Producers

Doug Leigh & Ryan Watkins

How to Cite

Leigh, D., Watkins, R., & Hamid, N.. (2019, September 17). Parsing Science – The Neuroscience of Terrorism. figshare. https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.9894509


What’s The Angle? by Shane Ivers


Hamid: They were proud to participate in the study: “Yes! I will be a representative of Lashkar-e-taiba!” … you know, an Al-Qaeda associate supporter. “You can scan my brain!”, you know.

Leigh: This is Parsing Science. The unpublished stories behind the world’s most compelling science, as told by the researchers themselves. I’m Doug Leigh.

Watkins: And I’m Ryan Watkins. Today, in episode 58 of Parsing Science, we’re joined by Nafees Hamid from Artis International and University College London. He’ll discuss what he learned by measuring the brain activity of supporters of a radical Islamist group as they talked about their willingness to fight and die for their values, and whether they were more or less likely to do so if they believed that their peers did or didn’t feel the same way. Here’s Nafees Hameed.

Hamid: Hello, I’m the Nafees Hamid. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. Started off my career, actually, as a professional actor. I went to theater conservatory. Was acting doing various regional theater. Lucky; didn’t need any side jobs. Was kind of making a go of it, but of course nothing famous that I did that your listeners would be able to remember me from. And then I decided I wanted to go live in France for a little while, just because it was always a dream of mine to go live in Paris. So I went to Paris to go teach English for a year. Again, thinking I would apply for grad school or something that year. My plan was to try to do a PhD in either at UCLA or USC and then continue acting while doing the PhD. Now I look back at the end realized that was quite ambitious, but … I get to Paris fall in love with Paris. Don’t get into any of the PhD programs that I had applied for. Happened to find out about this very interesting master’s program they had in cognitive science called the Cog Master. It’s like very interdisciplinary in many different labs, many different universities. And so I applied and I got directly into the second year of their master’s degree, so I was able to do it in one year. And then I decided to do my PhD in Security and Crime Sciences at University College London. And I’m just about to finish that PhD.

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