A neuroscientist explains why intelligent aliens are almost certainly out there

We are living it totally crazy times, and if you don’t think so, you haven’t been paying attention. For the first time in modern history, it is no longer fringe to believe in UFOs. Unidentified Flying Objects that move in ways that seem to be leagues beyond today’s technology have been captured on video by military agencies and released by the U.S. government. Whether these UFOs are spacecraft manned with extraterrestrials or just shockingly advanced military technology is an open question. There’s also the possibility that the videos are not what they appear—that they are capturing something in some sort of way that creates a visual illusion. Whatever explanation you favor, it is safe to say that you are in no position to claim any certainty in the matter. And if you are betting on aliens, you are not a fool. The physics displayed by the supposed craft in the videos released by the U.S. government defy explanation.

In this article, I don’t intend to convince anyone that the videos show aliens. I’m going to make an argument that I can back up with well-established science, which suggests that intelligent life is not all that rare in the universe, and from that fact, let the reader make up their mind about whether or not they think ETs are among us. Whatever you decide, you will come away with a new understanding of the universe and our place in it. The saga of cosmic evolution is a story of intelligent beings inevitably becoming gods, or at least sentient agents with god-like powers. This evolutionary trajectory has nothing to do with anything supernatural—it is a product of natural processes that create a tendency toward higher complexity.

Richard Dawkins, a god among evolutionary theorists, atheists, and skeptics—most famous for his 1976 classic The Selfish Gene, which revolutionized evolutionary biology—was recently asked “Do you think there’s intelligent life out there in the universe?” by MIT podcast host Lex Friedman. His answer might surprise you.

“Well, if we accept that there’s intelligent life here, and we accept that the number of planets in the universe is gigantic—10^22 stars have been estimated—it seems to me highly likely that there is not only life in the universe elsewhere, but also intelligent life. If you deny that then you’re committed to the view that the things that happened on this planet are staggeringly improbable; I mean ludicrously, off the charts, improbable. And I don’t think it’s that improbable.”

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In other words, there are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and about 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe, by today’s rough estimates. Either we are not alone, or we are unfathomably lucky to be here. But what if life were not a happy accident, and instead a regularity of nature that inevitably follows from the laws of physics on all those planets with the right chemical ingredients? Not an anomaly, but a natural manifestation of a universe that organizes itself to create complexity and consciousness?

Let’s get back to Richard Dawkins’ argument that intelligent life is almost certainly out there:

“…there are really two steps: the origin of life, which is probably fairly improbable, and then the subsequent evolution to intelligent life, which is also probably fairly improbable. So the juxtaposition of those two, you could say is pretty improbable, but not 10^22-improbable.”

According to Dawkins, there are so many planets out there that the improbable becomes probable. But in this article we are going to explain why life’s emergence and subsequent evolution toward intelligence was inevitable rather than improbable, not just here on Earth, but on all planets with the right planetary conditions. Basically, if the planet is sufficiently Earth-like it will produce complex adaptive systems (i.e., organisms), which will form a biosphere that produces increasingly complex and intelligent agents. Why?

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Because once you have a reproducing system that can evolve through Darwinian evolution, it’s just a matter of time before the biosphere generates an intelligent species with a collective intelligence capable of producing science and technology. In response to Lex Friedman’s question, “Do you think evolution would also be a force on the alien planet as well?” Dawkins remarked:

“I’ve stuck my neck out and said that ever if we ever do discover life elsewhere, it will be Darwinian life, in the sense that it will work by some kind of natural selection; the non-random survival of randomly-generated codes.”

In an article titled Darwin’s Aliens, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, the authors argue that extraterrestrials would likely evolve through natural selection to be highly complex and intelligent, as Dawkins suggests. Now we are going to learn why new theoretical work is providing support for that idea.

To explain why life and intelligence emerge inevitably given Earth-like conditions, we must understand the role that energy flows play in organizing non-living matter into organic computing machinery with sentience. In other words, evolution toward conscious creatures of increasing intelligence was destined to emerge in a universe that is always increasing in complexity.

Inevitable Life

Until recently, most scientists believed that the origin of life was such an unlikely event, requiring the “chance assembly” of so many molecules, that it would be unlikely to have occurred anywhere else in the universe. The Nobel Prize-winning French biologist Jacques Monod poetically summed up this view in his influential book Chance and Necessity, published in 1970, when he said, “The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty.” It was his passionate and uncompromising belief that “The universe was not pregnant with life.”

However, another 20th century Nobel Laureate, the biologist Christian de Duve, challenged this view, arguing that the universe was indeed pregnant with life, going as far as to say that biology seems to have been “written into the fabric of the universe.”

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De Duve was in good company. Carl Sagan, the most famous astronomer of the 20th century, also thought that life was a probable phenomenon in those places where conditions are ripe for life, writing:

“The origin of life must be a highly probably affair. As soon as conditions permit, up it pops!”

Indeed, the planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and life is now estimated to be about 4 billion years old. It arose only 100 million years or so after the Earth’s surface cooled enough to support life. That’s a blink of an eye in cosmic time.

So what does it mean exactly to say that life was inevitable rather than improbable? It means that when you have the right thermodynamic conditions—thermodynamics is the science of energy flow—energy moving through a system will organize inanimate matter with the ingredients for organic chemistry into animate matter, or biology.

“The energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system,” is the memorable line that Harold Morowitz, founding editor of the journal Complexity, wrote in 1968 in his prescient book Energy Flow in Biology. Decades later he would team up with physicist Eric Smith at the Santa Fe Institute, and the collaboration would ultimately produce the book The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth, which would lay out a new theory of abiogenesis—in other words, the emergence of life from non-life.

According to Smith and Morowitz, life emerged because the Earth’s geochemistry created an excess of chemical energy that built up near underwater volcanoes called hydrothermal vents. The heat flow coming out of these vents organized carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms into biomolecular machinery through a metabolic reaction pathway called the reverse citric acid cycle, and life was born.

How exactly does energy flowing through molecules organize those atoms into a complex adaptive system that can reproduce itself? Whenever there is a process that turns a simple system into something complex, we can suspect that some form of Darwinian evolution is at play. Dissipative adaptation is the newly-discovered process by which molecules assemble themselves when they are driven to interact by a flow of energy. Although this mechanism was described conceptually by Harold Morowitz many decades earlier, Jeremy England of MIT gave it a mathematical description and devised simulation studies that would serve as a proof of concept. To put it another way, the molecules of organic chemistry self-organize when sufficient energy is flowing through the system. Given enough time, a self-maintaining chemical system emerges that can copy itself. While there are many details that remain a mystery, the basic mechanisms underlying the origin of life have been illuminated by origin-of-life researchers.

According to the theories of England, Morowitz, and Smith, the emergence of life in the energetic conditions of the early Earth should be about as surprising as water flowing downhill. If you have the right ingredients, life emerging is not improbable but inevitable. So, when we ask how common is basic life in the universe, we must ask how many Earth-like planets are out there. Depending on what exact factors are critical—such as size, distance from a star, and molecular makeup—there are billions to trillions of them.

So alien life is almost certainly out there, and while it is obviously not present on the majority of planets—at least not anywhere near us—it is presumably not rare either. While it may be too far for us to see with current technology, the cosmos could be teeming with life. Given its inevitability, you could say we live in a “pro-life universe.”

“If life in its abundance were bound to arise, not as an incalculably improbable accident, but as an expected fulfillment of the natural order,” writes origins-of-life pioneer Stuart Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute, “then we truly are at home in the universe.”

While this changes how we think about life—it is not accidental but a natural manifestation of the “cosmic code”—it would be quite disappointing if only single-celled life were out there. Bacteria are not going to produce anything interesting, like culture and technology. So the real question of interest is whether intelligent life is out there.

Well, extraterrestrial enthusiasts are in luck, because there are good reasons to believe that with biospheres like the one we inhabit, the eventual emergence of general intelligence may be just as inevitable as basic biology.

Inevitable Intelligence

If intelligence is not an unlikely phenomenon, but a natural manifestation of a universal tendency for complexity to arise and grow without bound where conditions permit, then we can expect intelligence elsewhere in the cosmos.

Those who have taken an evolution course in high school or college know that all species are not evolving toward higher complexity or intelligence. Sharks and crocodiles are well-known examples of species that haven’t changed in any significant way over many millions of years of evolution by natural selection. In fact, fish that have migrated to caves have been known to lose their eyes over evolutionary time, becoming simpler. This fact clearly illustrates that not all organisms, or even the majority, are growing more complex through evolution. If a genetic mutation simplifies the design of a creature, and that simplified design increases their ability to survive—their ‘fitness’—then that simpler form will be ‘selected’ by nature. In other words, they will get to live on and reproduce.

It would appear that evolution does not make species increasingly complex or intelligent per se, but simply well-adapted to whatever environment they habit. Some ecological ‘niches’ present a great variety of challenges that must be adapted to, while others present hardly any. As a result, some organisms become more complex while some barely evolve at all.

Some scientists, like the famous 20th century evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, have interpreted this to mean that evolution does not create any inherent drive toward higher complexity and intelligence, but this is a mistake. While evolution certainly does not drive every species to become increasingly complex, it does continually create new species, and over evolutionary time, will produce increasingly complex species.As the great sociobiologist E.O. Wilson explained in his 1992 book The Diversity of Life, there is a self-reinforcing tendency for ecosystems to create new niches and new species.

Not only that, the need to adapt to an increasingly complex environment will systematically increase the complexity of the most complex species through what is known as an “evolutionary arms race,” which is a name for a competitive struggle that ratchets up intelligence. For example, humans in complex urban societies, like the tech hub in Silicon Valley, are competing with each other for jobs that require high intelligence and flexible or adaptive thinking. This selection pressure has been around to some degree since homo sapiens emerged, and when civilization emerged, the need for complex problem-solvers exploded.

A similar idea is the “Red Queen Hypothesis,” which says that for the most intelligent species in a biosphere, simply persisting requires a continual increase in intelligence. Members of such a species must constantly adapt, evolve, and reproduce just to maintain their existence, due to a competitive, ever-evolving environment. The name, proposed by the evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen in 1973, comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. After Alice complains of running for a very long time and going nowhere, the Queen responds, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” In other words, some species must evolve to become increasingly complex just to stay in the game of existence. With evolutionary arms races happening constantly, it should not be surprising that increasingly intelligent species emerge over time as a result of blind and mechanical evolutionary processes.

Inevitable Expansion

The other major mechanism of complexity and intelligence increase is known as an “evolutionary transition,” which has also been called a “metasystem transition.” These terms typically refer to events where organisms come together, through cooperative evolution, to form a larger organism—a superorganism that has a collective intelligence that is greater than the intelligence of any of its members.

One such transition occurred when single-celled organisms formed a multicellular organism. Another occurred when multicellular organisms came together to form societies. Ant colonies are a popular example, but human civilization is another, although we don’t typically think of the global population of humans as forming a superorganism. But what we are collectively is a global brain, in which humans and their devices and AIs form something like a neural network that spans the planet. The body of the superorganism that supports the global brain is the entire biosphere, and the processes of life make up its physiology.

What’s the next stage in the evolution of the global superorganism? Well, depending on how far the organism metaphor applies, the biosphere’s next step would be self-replication. What would this look like at the level of a biosphere? If we colonize Mars, that would be the biosphere reproducing! When intelligent life terraforms a new planet, it will create a copy of its biosphere, and because the new planet will have different properties than the planet of origin, there will be replication with variation. These planets may compete economically and for new territory in space, or they may cooperate to form a new superorganism—perhaps one of galactic proportions, given enough time.

“I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness,” says one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, Christof Koch, who was trained as a physicist.

“The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable. Teilhard de Chardin is correct in his view that islands within the universe—if not the whole cosmos—are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit priest and paleontologist who wrote a truly prophetic book about the progressive nature of biological and technological evolution called The Phenomenon of Man, published after his death in 1955 because the Catholic Church considered it heresy. This book, written two decades earlier, predicted the emergence of what Teilhard de Chardin called a “noosphere”—a word he used to describe a state in which humans form a global mind as a result of communication technology (“noos” is Greek for mind). Due to the predictive power of his theory of progressive evolution, called the Omega Point theory, Teilhard was able to foresee the creation of the Internet even before the digital computer was invented. An omega point is a state of optimal complexity that an evolving biosphere tends to move in the direction of, due to what physicists call an “attractor.”

The great inventor Nikola Tesla also predicted strangely specific details about the future based on his idea that humans on Earth are forming a global brain:

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is…. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

Despite the appearance of having some kind of psychic ability to see into the future, these men simply understood the continual and accelerating increase in complexity and intelligence that results from continual biological, culture, and technological evolution.

While the success of our specific civilization is in no way guaranteed, it appears that there’s a natural tendency for biospheres being pushed by flows of solar energy toward greater organization to grow increasingly complex and intelligent. Adaptive complexity—which is what life really is—doesn’t just grow more computationally powerfully over time, it also becomes harder to kill or restrain. This is the magic of a self-correcting biosphere—by learning from its mistakes, a complex adaptive system actually becomes more powerful from everything that doesn’t eliminate it completely. So, the inevitable growth of complexity and the spread of life in the cosmos is not driven by some supernatural or conscious cosmic force; it is a learning process that creates knowledge which allows sentient systems to resist the natural tendency toward decay or disorder described by the second law of thermodynamics.

David Deutsch, father of the field of quantum computing and the leading advocate for the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, is very clear about the open-ended nature of evolution: “This process need never come to an end. There are no inherent limits to the growth of knowledge and progress.”

As long as there is usable energy to extract somewhere out there in the universe, intelligence can continue to spread through the cosmos, converting the inanimate matter of the universe into the living network. Through the process of complexity increase, the inanimate universe begins to wake up and experience the fruits of its own creation. Carl Sagan famously said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” and that poetic statement now rests on a firm scientific foundation.

Coming back to our original question: what have we learned about the likelihood of aliens in the universe? They almost certainly exist, and some of these aliens are almost certainly intelligent. Of course, the Fermi paradox remains: if intelligent life is out there, why haven’t we seen any traces of it. Well, space is a big place, and it may take a long time to get here. Our tools for detecting them may also be too primitive. So, we may just be early to the game—ETs may be on their way here right now, coming at us from a distant galaxy at near the speed of life. Of course, that is, if they aren’t already among us, keeping themselves undetected as they study our weird and seemingly self-destructive society in an attempt to better understand the nature of life.

The topic of this article is discussed in more detail in my forthcoming book, The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity, which you can pre-order here. For a short summary of the book, check out the below video, “ A brief introduction to a Darwinian theory of reality.”

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and a science journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.

A Brief Introduction to a Darwinian Theory of Reality with Infinity Maps www.youtube.com


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The neuroscience behind Will Smith's attack on Chris Rock

In case you missed it, last night at the Oscars, actor Will Smith slapped the bejesus out of comedian Chris Rock, who was one of the award show’s presenters.

If you’ve ever watched the Oscars, you know that comedians are expected to make the atmosphere a little less stuffy by roasting the audience. And remember, the audience is full of insanely rich and beautiful celebrities, so an aim of the roasting is to bring these pop culture gods back down to Earth. You can think of celebrity roasting as a sort of civic duty for comedians.

That being said, Chris Rock arguably went over the line when he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s short haircut, which apparently is to hide her alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that makes you lose your hair. Rock said he was looking forward to seeing Pinkett in “G.I. Jane 2,” a reference to a 1997 movie that famously starred a bald Demi Moore, who played a female soldier in the film. I am not sure whether Rock knew that Jada had a condition or if he thought she was just sporting short hair—which she has done in the past with stunning beauty—but if he did not then Will Smith owes him an apology.

However, it is quite possible that Rock did in fact know and chose to go there anyway. After all, another duty of the comedian is to push the limits of what society can tolerate. But when you decide to take up that duty, there’s a certain amount of risk that comes along with it.

Will Smith may have not been justified in doing what he did, but all of us who have lost our tempers at some point in our life can sympathize with the man. That being said, I do not condone Smith’s response, but as a neuroscientist, I know why it happened, and it is called “amygdala hijack.”

To truly understand why Will Smith snapped, we have to understand the role and interplay of two brain areas—the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

The amygdala is a region of the brain that is activated when we perceive something to be threatening. For example, if someone is shown a video of an attacker coming at them, functional brain imaging would show that the amygdala “lights up,” thus it is associated with the “flight or fight” response. If this neural structure is activated by some stimulus—such as a perceived attack, physical or emotional—then the individual may experience a strong urge to attack in response. This is called amygdala hijack, and that is basically a technical term for “losing your sh*t.” Think of it as the fear center controlling your behavior.

The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is the brain region responsible for suppressing the reflexive behavioral response that is triggered by amygdala activation. A function of the prefrontal cortex is to regulate our emotions and control our urges. When the fear response kicks in, the front of the brain assesses the situation and modulates our actions accordingly. Amygdala hijack may induce a violent response, but if the prefrontal cortex does its job, the individual should be able to self-correct before the behavior is executed.

So, when Will Smith perceived Chris Rock’s joke as a threat to his wife’s emotional well-being, it is not a surprise that he did what he did. His amygdala temporarily hijacked his cognitive system, and for whatever reason, his prefrontal cortex was not able to override his automatic behavioral response in time. And if he had been drinking that night, then his prefrontal cortex might have been inhibited to some degree.

Interestingly, the video reveals that at first Smith was laughing at Rock’s joke, so it is likely that Smith’s amygdala was triggered later, when he saw his wife’s sad and upset expression. Who knows how she has been dealing with the emotional toll that alopecia takes on a person, and more so a female actor who is constantly being judged by her appearance. This likely activated his mirror neuron system, which in turn produces feelings of empathy.

Now that we have an understanding of the neuroscience and psychology at play in last night’s altercation, we can ask whether Will Smith was right or wrong in his actions, and whether he should be forgiven and allowed to attend future Oscar ceremonies.

To answer that, we must understand that sympathizing or empathizing does not mean justifying or condoning. I personally do not believe Smith was justified in physically attacking Chris Rock for doing what comedians are pretty much expected to do, even if the joke was cruel. As mentioned, without knowing if Rock knew about Pinkett’s alopecia, it is hard to judge whether Rock deserved what he got; but even if he did know, I still do not think a violent response is acceptable. Part of being a civilized human being is reining in our emotions, and inhibiting our violent instincts.

At the same time, I can understand why Smith did what he did, and can see myself responding similarly under similar conditions, and regretting my actions similarly. This was not the first time that the Smiths have been a target of Rock’s Oscar roasting. In 2016, he compared Jada Pinkett’s decision to boycott the Oscars due to a lack of diversity to Rock’s boycotting of Rihanna’s panties: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!”

In addition to amygdala hijack, the Smith’s might have been anticipating an attack from Rock at some unconscious level, so in a sense Will might have been primed for such an event. Priming refers to when “exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intent.” Similarly, Rock’s cool-headed response may also be a sign that at some level he was anticipating the possibility of some explosive reaction from one of the two Smiths.

What’s the lesson to be learned here? We can sympathize without justifying. Losing your cool means being human. Surely Will Smith’s good acts outweigh this one disappointing event. For that reason, I believe society and the Oscar committee should forgive Smith for his inappropriate actions. At the same time, Rock should also be forgiven, and invited back to the Oscars to continue his celebrity roasting. We do not want future presenters to be fearful when making fun of celebrities. Thick skin should come with the territory.

We can all learn from this unfortunate event. The next time something “triggers” you, be mindful of your response, and allow your prefrontal cortex to subdue that pesky amygdala. In doing so, you will stop yourself from doing something you’ll regret later.


Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the forthcoming book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity, which is available for preorder from Amazon. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter


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@BobbyAzarian.


A neuroscientist explains how religious fundamentalism hijacks the brain

In moderation, religious and spiritual practices can be great for a person's life and mental well-being. But religious fundamentalism—which refers to the belief in the absolute authority of a religious text or leaders—is almost never good for an individual. This is primarily because fundamentalism discourages any logical reasoning or scientific evidence that challenges its scripture, making it inherently maladaptive.

It is not accurate to call religious fundamentalism a disease, because that term refers to a pathology that physically attacks the biology of a system. But fundamentalist ideologies can be thought of as mental parasites. A parasite does not usually kill the host it inhabits, as it is critically dependent on it for survival. Instead, it feeds off it and changes its behavior in ways that benefit its own existence. By understanding how fundamentalist ideologies function and are represented in the brain using this analogy, we can begin to understand how to inoculate against them, and potentially, how to rehabilitate someone who has undergone ideological brainwashing—in other words, a reduction in one's ability to think critically or independently.

How Religious Ideologies Spread

Similar to how organisms and their genes compete for survival in the environment and gene pool, ideas compete for survival inside brains, and in the pool of ideas that inhabit them. The famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has used this insightful analogy to explain how ideas spread and evolve over time. In his influential 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he refers to ideas as "memes" (the mental analog of a gene), which he has defined as self-replicating units that spread throughout culture. We are all familiar with many types of memes, including the various customs, myths, and trends that have become part of human society.

As Dawkins explains, ideas spread through the behavior that they produce in their hosts, which is what enables them to be transmitted from one brain to another. For example, an ideology—such as a religion—that causes its inhabitants to practice its rituals and communicate its beliefs will be transmitted to others. Successful ideas are those that are best able to spread themselves, while those that fail to self-replicate go extinct. In this way, some religious ideologies persist while others fade into oblivion.

It is easy to see why religion quickly spread through culture once it emerged. When humans gained the cognitive capacity to reason and plan for the future, they became aware of their own mortality. The realization that oneself and all one's loved ones will someday die is naturally terrifying, and this existential fear perfectly set the stage for anxiety-reducing ideas, like ones that offer a never-ending afterlife. But religions are complex ideas, and the psychological effects they have on minds go beyond just relieving anxiety.

Essentially, the brain is a biological computer, and an ideology is a set of coded instructions, or "cultural software," that is running on the brain's hardware. Esteemed philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett insightfully described how ideas can control minds when he said, "The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes." In this regard, it is often not the brain that controls the mind, but the memes that compose the mind that control the brain. This is especially the case when the meme is a religion.

Religions Mutate

Like genes and gene complexes, when an ideology is replicated—or passed from one person or group to another—it undergoes mutations. As a consequence, different versions of that belief system are produced, which generate different types of behavior. As such, there are often good and bad variants of any given religion. For instance, there are moderate versions of Christianity and Islam, that promote qualities like a sense of community and a moral code that fosters ethical behavior. These ideas can be beneficial to the host organism, i.e., the religious-practicing individual. At the same time, there are harmful variants of Islam and Christianity—specifically the rigid fundamentalist versions— that cause the host mind to process information in a biased way, think irrationally, and become delusional.

Ideological Viruses and Mental Parasites

There are various types of viruses and parasites, and viruses are themselves parasites. While biological viruses are infectious agents that self-replicate inside living cells, computer viruses are destructive pieces of code that insert themselves into existing programs and change the actions of those programs. One particularly nasty type of computer virus that relies on humans for replication, known as a "Trojan horse," disguises itself as something useful or interesting in order to persuade individuals to download and spread it. Similarly, a harmful ideology disguises itself as something beneficial in order to insert itself into the brain of an individual, so that it can instruct them to behave in ways that transmit the mental virus to others. The ability for parasites to modify the behavior of hosts in ways that increase their own "fitness" (i.e., their ability to survive and reproduce) while hurting the fitness of the host, is known as "parasitic manipulation."

One particularly intriguing example of parasitic manipulation occurs when a hairworm infects a grasshopper and seizes its brain in order to survive and self-replicate. This parasite influences its behavior by inserting specific proteins into its brain. Essentially, infected grasshoppers become slaves for parasitic, self-copying machinery.

In much the same way, Christian fundamentalism is a parasitic ideology that inserts itself into brains, commanding individuals to act and think in a certain way—a rigid way that is intolerant to competing ideas. We know that religious fundamentalism is strongly correlated with what psychologists and neuroscientists call "magical thinking," which refers to making connections between actions and events when no such connections exist in reality. Without magical thinking, the religion can't survive, nor can it replicate itself. Another cognitive impairment we see in those with extreme religious views is a greater reliance on intuitive rather than reflective or analytic thought, which frequently leads to incorrect assumptions since intuition is often deceiving or overly simplistic.

We also know that in the United States, Christian fundamentalism is linked to science denial. Since science is nothing more than a method of determining truth using empirical measurement and hypothesis testing, denial of science equates to the denial of objective truth and tangible evidence. In other words, the denial of reality. Not only does fundamentalism promote delusional thinking, it also discourages followers from exposing themselves to any different ideas, which acts to protect the delusions that are essential to the ideology.

If we want to inoculate society against the harms of fundamentalist ideologies, we must start thinking differently about how they function in the brain. An ideology with a tendency to harm its host in an effort to self-replicate gives it all the properties of a parasitic virus, and defending against such a belief system requires understanding it as one. When a fundamentalist ideology inhabits a host brain, the organism's mind is no longer fully in control. The ideology is controlling its behavior and reasoning processes to propagate itself and sustain its survival. This analogy should inform how we approach efforts that attempt to reverse brainwashing and restore cognitive function in areas like analytic reasoning and problem-solving.

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.

A neuroscientist explains how Trump’s most fanatical followers could lead America to societal collapse

Do not be alarmed, but consider this article a prediction and a warning. Actually, it's okay to be a little alarmed, because recent events—like the storming of the Capitol—are certainly cause for concern. Let's call it what it is; Donald Trump has created a cult and radicalized its members. QAnon also shares a large part of the responsibility, whoever they are. We may not be able to see it because Trump has been banned from Twitter and Q conversation cleaned from social media, but behind the scenes, this cult is being transformed into an army of soldiers.

How do we know that it is as serious as I say; that this is not just more fear mongering? Well, for one, people have died. Heather Heyer, a counterprotester protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, was run over by a white supremacist, and 19 others were injured. Last year a man drew a hunting bow on protestors in Salt Lake City before being taken out by the crowd, a chilling moment that was captured on video. On the day of the Capitol riot, a pipe bomb was found a few blocks from the Capitol building. In addition to these troubling events, many others who will go unnamed have been the victims of hate crimes that can be traced to the alt-Right, pro-Trump movement.

But the causalities have not only been on one side. Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt was fatally wounded by a cop as the mob tried to breach a door, another frightening moment caught on video. The point I'm making has nothing to do with whether or not the shooting was justified—though saying that level of force was necessary strikes me as uncomfortably close to Right-wing apologists who defend cops that shoot unarmed black men. The point is that the violence is escalating, and there's every reason to believe that escalation will continue. To use Newton's third law as a metaphor—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, what does this mean for the future of America?

Since aggression provokes fear, and fear promotes aggression, a dangerous feedback loop has been established, dividing the nation to such a degree that something like civil war seems imminent. It may be a "cold civil war," but there will still be violence, destruction, and death. There will also be more gridlock in Washington, which makes any kind of progress impossible. It is hard to calculate the suffering that could have been avoided with a functional Congress, but we can be sure it is substantial. And if the division gets too severe, which is where we are headed, there will be a point of no return. Social chaos and economic collapse will follow, the United States will lose its status as a superpower, and life as we know it, will cease. If the pandemic showed us anything, it is that despite how advanced we are technologically, we are not protected from disaster, and our way of life can change overnight.

The good news is that this gloomy future is only inevitable should we choose not to intervene. But we do have to make a conscious effort to avoid catastrophe if we want any chance of being successful. I'm not talking about compromising, or forgiving, or forgetting—because we should do none of those things. I'm proposing something altogether new, something radical to stop Right-wing radicalism. But to understand the solution, and why it is necessary, we first have to get a clearer understanding of the problem, and of the predictive power of science.

The Predictive Power of Terror Management Theory

To those skeptics who consider a civil war of sorts an unlikely scenario, just ask yourself how likely any of the events mentioned above would have seemed in the pre-Trump era. Imagine taking a time machine back to 2014, and telling people that the reality show star Donald Trump would be our next president. That alone would sound ridiculous. Now imagine telling people that thousands of his supporters would storm the Capitol—many armed—in hopes of overturning the 2020 election. It would sound like some zany plot for an over-the-top comedy. Now imagine that after such event, and after trying to get his vice president killed, Trump would still own the Republican party and all of conservative media. On the surface, this outcome seems so improbable that it makes one doubt our ability to predict the future at all.

Despite how unlikely this general scenario might have seemed, I'm going to argue that it was in fact predictable with a high degree of statistical certainty, if one had the proper theoretical framework through which to understand those events as they were unfolding. That framework is called Terror Management Theory(TMT), and this paradigm from social psychology will be our sense-making lens in a time where nothing seems to make much sense.

Armed with the logic of Terror Management Theory, and an understanding of the relevant neuroscience, I was able to predict the rise of Trump, the white Nationalist movement that put him in office, the Q problem that led to the Capitol attack, and the refusal to accept the results of the election by Trump and his supporters—many months in advance. These predictions will be explained later in the article. No, I am not a psychic, but I did have a crystal ball called "science."

Karl Popper, the father of the philosophy of science, said the riskier the prediction made by a scientific theory, the more convincing it is when that prediction comes true. And you can be sure that when I was making such predictions, in articles for websites like Raw Story, Daily Beast, and Psychology Today, they seemed to describe highly unlikely outcomes. That is, if one were getting their analyses from mainstream news media and professional statisticians unfamiliar with the effects of "mortality salience"—in other words, making people think about death, or making them feel that there is a looming existential threat. I bring up these predictions not to say "I told you so" or for bragging rights; rather, it is a plea for the reader to take the predictions of the theory seriously.

To understand how Terror Management Theory can be used to predict the collective behavior of a society when existential threat looms—whether that threat is ISIS, Right-wing terror, or the pandemic—a brief introduction is in order. If you are already familiar with the theory and its relevance to Trump supporter psychology from past articles published at Raw Story, know that this piece presents new insights and ties up many seemingly unrelated features of cognition in a way that illuminates precisely why everything happened the way it did. The Trump loyalist is a mystery we are about to unravel, and in doing so, we come to see that the average MAGA maniac had little choice over their behavior.

Cultural Worldviews are Death-Anxiety Buffers

Terror Management Theory, which was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book from the 1970s called The Denial of Death, has been supported by hundreds of psychology and neuroscience studies. According to the theory, most of human behavior is driven by our subconscious fear of death. Unlike most if not all other animals, we have an awareness that one day we will inevitably die, for reasons that are beyond our control. This realization leads to an existential fear that is always bubbling beneath the surface. Without any way to cope with that cold hard fact of life—or fact of death, I should say—it can be difficult to get up in the morning, and to go on living, knowing it is all in futility.

How do we deal with our fear of death and unrelenting existential angst? Through cultural worldviews.

According to TMT, as a way of dealing with persistent death anxiety, humans created cultural worldviews—like religions, national identities, and political ideologies—to ease our fears and distract us from the fact that we will soon be gone, and probably forgotten. These worldviews make us feel safe and permanent by providing paths to immortality.

Through the concept of an afterlife, religions make literal immortality possible, while political ideologies and national identities give us symbolic immortality. In other words, they make us feel like we're part of a group and a movement that will outlive the individual. Worldviews also give life a meaning and a purpose. Whether we identify as Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, Democrat or Republican or Libertarian, we all belong to a tribe. Some tribes are just more ideologically extreme than others, and less accepting of outsiders. This applies even to atheists and anarchists, who are often just as ideological as the ideologies they are trying to escape.

So, worldviews are a double-edged sword: on one hand they give us direction and comfort, on the other they divide us into in-groups and out-groups, turning fellow humans into spiritual or political enemies. The unfortunate result is tribalism. Racism can be thought of as a specific type of tribalism, as tribalism proper would include other types of prejudice, like bias against people of other nationalities, religions, and political parties.

Tribalism, or loyalty to one's social group and aggression toward outsiders, is bad enough when times are good, but when there is an atmosphere of existential fear lingering over society for whatever reason—terror attacks, political incompetence, or a pandemic—tribal behavior gets turned up to eleven. In response to mortality salience, we double-down on our beliefs and try to force them on dissimilar others, and if they resist, we try to punish them. Whether the purpose of this punishment is to enforce fairness or to get revenge is largely in the eye of the beholder.

Understanding racism as emergent from tribalism can make sense of many confusing things. For example, during the Capitol riot, footage from Fox News showed more than a few black protestors in the audience. CNN cameras showed practically none, and we will probably never know whether Fox was selectively focusing on the minorities in the crowd, or if CNN was selecting them out of shot, though we can reasonably assume the truth is probably somewhere in between. While the minorities appeared to be safe in the crowd of QAnons and Trump soldiers, Nancy Pelosi would have undoubtedly gotten mauled by the mob. This of course does not mean that many of the Alt-Right rioters were not racist—it simply means they interpreted the minorities in the crowd to be tribe defectors, and as long as they show allegiance to the Nationalist movement or conspiracy theory mindset that signals they belong to the right tribe, the white tribe, they are accepted.

While the Alt-Right is mostly composed of Christians and Republicans, their Christian-American worldview has evolved into the more-extreme philosophical framework outlined by the tribe leaders—Donald Trump, Q, and conservative talk show hosts looking to boost ratings. At the same time, these influencers are monitoring social media and gauging sentiment on the ground, so the views of the tribe members and leaders evolve together, and this coevolution is guided largely by the atmosphere of existential fear, which is enhanced by the fear mongering coming from the top. And then, Trump's reassuring words, and Q's perceived righteousness, provide scared and confused human beings with a philosophy that gives them comfort and purpose. It is difficult if not impossible to reach these people with reason alone, as reason is not going to make them feel safe or comforted or inspired. And if the reasoning is perceived as being based on principles from an opposing tribe's worldview, they will flat out reject that logic on principle alone. That is not to say these people are completely unreachable—it's just going to take a lot more than reasoning with them.

Predictions Come True

What were the sources of existential threat that created the conditions that would put an opportunist like Trump in the most powerful position in the world? In 2016, I wrote an article for the website Aeon titled How the Fear of Death Makes People More Right-Wing, which argued that the Brexit and Trump movements were catalyzed by existential fear created by the string of ISIS attacks that had recently rocked the world. Prior to that essay, in January—almost a year before the election—I wrote an article for Raw Story called Donald Trump Has a Mental Disorder That Makes Him a Dangerous World Leader, which over the course of his presidency would receive upwards of 30 million views, making it the website's most popular article ever published. In July of 2016, when all the pundits and statisticians were predicting a blowout by Hillary Clinton, I published another article titled A Neuroscientist Explains Why Trump is Winning, and one month later another piece titled The More People Think About Death, the More They Think About Voting for Trump, which directly linked Terror Management Theory to Trump's rabid support. A 2016 Daily Beast article along the same lines, called Why Do Some People Respond to Trump? It's Biology 101, issued a warning for voters in its concluding paragraph:

"The rise of Trump has defied almost all logic. But he isn't appealing to logic. He is appealing to our most basic survival instincts. Those include fear and the natural tendency to thrive and conquer. This presidential election will be an important test for our nation. We will see if we are evolved enough for our logic to overcome our instincts."

Apparently we were not. Over the next few years, I would write more than a dozen articles on Trump-related psychology for Raw Story and Psychology Today that would receive millions of views, and land me offers of representation by fancy literary agencies, and media requests for appearances on popular web shows like the Young Turks' Damage Report and the David Pakman Show. In these interviews I described how Trump would respond as he began to lose power, based on insights from Terror Management Theory and the neuroscience of narcissism. Again, I deserve no special credit for these predictions; had I not been introduced to Terror Management Theory by a colleague, I would have been just as clueless as the pundits and statisticians. However, Ernest Becker, the cultural anthropologist who wrote The Denial of Death, and Sheldon Solomon, the psychologist who turned Becker's idea into an actual testable theory, are prophets in my book. Prophets of death, I guess you'd call them.

A more recent article, posted in September of 2020 at Psychology Today, titled How Trump and Media Allies Target the Mentally Vulnerable, had another clear warning. The teaser text read, "We can expect that conspiracy theories will be weaponized this election (again)." In it I explain how Trump and Q targeted people with schizophrenia and related disorders, by exploiting their heightened sensitivity to patterns (which are often not actually there). In another article published around the same time, I warned that the division was getting so bad that we could expect the election results to be rejected by half of the country. Despite these dire predictions being widely broadcast, the future that the science was foreshadowing seemed to be unavoidable. Why? Because unless we can learn to mentally override our fears and biases, they will completely control us, and they will make us tribal. But we are not totally hopeless—if we understand the neuroscience underlying these phenomena, we can fight back.

The Prefrontal Cortex is the Source of "Free Will"

The kind of person who is likely to be a Trump extremist is also likely to have impaired or suboptimal brain function in an important region known as the prefrontal cortex. A healthily-functioning prefrontal cortex is what allows one to override their primitive instincts, to think rationally, and to respond to stressful events in a controlled manner, rather than being controlled by fear and reflexive behavior. It does this by arming the conscious agent with a higher form of self-regulation and control, known as cognitive control, executive control, or effortful control.

To be clear, impaired cognitive control is not just a problem we see with Right-wing radicals. It is connected to ideological extremism more generally, so poor prefrontal activation is a concern for Left and Right-wingers alike. In fact, this cognitive profile is also associated with stimulant and alcohol addiction, as well as mental illness, like schizophrenia. And in super stressful times, like during a pandemic, we all become mentally ill in some way (anxiety, depression, etc.), and therefore less in control of our biases and behavior, which limits our ability to act freely. Why? Because the cognitive mechanisms that normally allow us to do so dissolve, leaving us with only preprogrammed behavior.

While some people will claim that they have no racial biases, or any biases for that matter, a famous experiment called the implicit bias task reveals that almost all of us do, and there's plenty of data to prove it. This bias affects how we process information and perceive the social world around us. However, this bias is subconscious and not easily detected with the naked eye. This has the unfortunate result of making it easy to ignore. Whether or not our implicit racial bias leads to overtly racist attitudes and behavior depends on an interplay between different brain areas—specifically the amygdala, which lights up when we experience something we perceive to be threatening, and the prefrontal cortex, whose job it is to regulate and suppress that fear response and the associated behavior. But if the prefrontal cortex isn't working right, it can't do its job.

Brain imaging studies have shown that people who display a stronger implicit bias have a stronger electrical response to black or other-race faces in the amygdala. An exaggerated amygdala response is part of what creates the sudden sensation of feeling scared. In people with healthy functioning brains, the fast amygdala response activates the prefrontal cortex, which is slower and plays a regulatory role. When the fear system is triggered, prefrontral areas work to assess the situation rationally, calming the mind and curbing fear-evoked behavior. Thanks to specific neural regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain exercises cognitive control, suppressing the tendency toward tribalism.

The problem is, not everyone has a properly functioning prefrontal cortex, and these people are the ones whose biases control them. They cannot reason those fearful surges away because they lack the mechanisms that make that kind of high-level reasoning possible. Since alcohol and amphetamine addiction can exacerbate this problem, Fox News viewers with such vices will be more vulnerable to the effects of fear mongering, and if they are given a "call to action" by a tribe leader like Trump or Q, more likely to act aggressively in an effort to push their worldview on others. Most supporters will stay home, but with many millions of followers tuned in, it is not surprising that a few thousand showed up to storm the Capitol.

So now that we understand the root cause of it all, perhaps we should view Trump and Q followers differently. They are not normal supporters, but more akin to cult members who have been radicalized by fear, their fates determined due to a lack of free will—which refers to our ability to override our primitive programming and tribal instincts. They are, in a sense, victims. They have been duped and brainwashed by rigid ideologies almost from the time of birth, and those ideologies have been weaponized by divisive politicians like Donald Trump. Does it make more sense to want to punish or fight these people, or to recognize them as agents who've lost their autonomy and ability to reason effectively?

The enemies are the influencers intentionally deceiving these vulnerable people, stoking their fears and fueling their biases. You may say some were racist, crazy, or ignorant before Trump, but we now see how that got that way. Politicians create fear and hatred for votes, Alex Jones does it for clicks, Fox does it for ratings, and QAnon does it for…chaos, I suppose. These are the people we must not let win. The actual followers are pawns in their game.

So, what can we do to release these people from the grips of their psychological captors?

The Path to Deradicalization

The solution is multi-faceted, and change won't happen overnight. One major goal would be to alter the worldview and belief structure of the extremist, and another would be to strengthen their prefrontal cortex, so that the agent is in control, rather than being controlled by the primitive brain.

Fortunately, one fascinating feature of the brain is its plasticity—or ability to rewire itself in response to new information and experience throughout life. Through exposure to new stimuli, new synaptic connections can be formed, creating neural pathways that can promote a restructuring of old and rigid belief systems. To facilitate cognitive restructuring, meditation and attentional exercises can train the prefrontal cortex to attenuate a hyperactive amygdala and control those bad instincts. A campaign to make these kinds of practices commonplace should be a goal of scientists and educators. It is not easy, but it is certainly possible to reverse biased and even racist tendencies through cognitive interventions. Counterbias training has proven effective in making police officers more aware of their implicit biases, though enhanced awareness does not always immediately translate into changes in behavior.

That could require more extreme therapeutic measures, such as pharmacological treatments to reset the brain. Psilocybin, the ingredient in magic mushrooms, or LSD, supplemented with talk therapy could be an effective way to alter rigid worldviews and dissolve biases. In a 2016 article, I suggested LSD therapy for Donald Trump, and although the title may make one chuckle, I seriously believe it would be the most effective way to get Trump to understand the effects of the division he's sowed. Psychedelics work by relaxing belief structures, so that the agent can "achieve a healthy revision of pathological beliefs," to quote psychedelics researcher Robin Carhart-Harris. Unfortunately, this remedy would require that the extremist be open-minded enough to give such an experimental treatment a try. Given that the average Q follower is all about "waking up" and seeing reality as it is, it is not unreasonable to think that a psychedelics campaign could catch on in those communities. Studies have shown that the use of psychedelics is associated with a decrease in authoritarian political views and an increase in views associated with liberalism, like open-mindedness and empathy (though one could argue some "liberals" today have neither of these). These drugs work by dissolving the ego, making one feel more connected to nature and to others.

But the real problem is that our most popular worldviews—the major religions, political ideologies, and national identities—divide us into tribes, and emphasize our differences rather than our similarities and shared human interests. If Terror Management Theory is correct, then the obvious solution is a new cultural and political worldview that unites us all under a common existential goal: the continued survival, progress, and eventually, the outward expansion of humanity. This worldview is called the Cosmic Perspective, and I have outlined it in a Psychology Today blog post titled, Could a 'Cosmic Religion' Unite a Divided Nation? You can learn about how the Cosmic Perspective naturally emerges from Terror Management Theory in this YouTube video on my channel (Road to Omega), Trump Divided America—Here's How We Heal.

Part of being liberal means being compassionate, but this is just as much about practicality as it is empathy. There's really no other choice than trying to make things better. I'll be playing my part by creating more content aimed at coming together—call it propaganda for a psychedelic revolution. Coming together does not mean meeting in the middle—as extreme centrism can be just as counterproductive as any other kind of extremism. We need radical solutions that push us forward, and we cannot go forward if we're at war.

If you'd like to be part of the solution, subscribe to my Substack newsletter, Road to Omega, which is a project aimed at fighting misinformation, healing division, and redistributing wealth and power in America. The project will be tokenized with NFTs (non-fungible tokens), and token holders will benefit from the project's success, so there is value in participating.

Simply stated, Road to Omega is an effort to save the world with science and epistemology. The plan entails:

If you'd like to read more about Road to Omega before subscribing, check out the first Substack newsletter—a plan to save the world with science and epistemology—here. This post lays out the plan in detail and tells you how you can get involved. Alternatively, you can read the much shorter About page.Aside from the newsletter, I will be continuing to publish articles at Raw Story along the same lines, so stay tuned!

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.

Donald Trump: We warned you of the dangers of his presidency 5 years ago -- how do we stop it from happening again?

In two days, the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, will leave the White House. As specially-trained experts remove his staff's COVID cooties from the building, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take their oaths of office, ending what many experts believe is the worst presidency in our country's history. But America will never be the same.

Nearly 5 years ago to the day, we issued the following warning from neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, who made the case that Trump "has a mental disorder that makes him a dangerous world leader." By our estimates, more than 30 million people have read this story -- and it remains far and away the most popular story we've ever published. --Roxanne Cooper

According to a number of top U.S. psychologists, like Harvard professor and researcher Howard Gardner, Donald Trump is a "textbook" narcissist. In fact, he fits the profile so well that clinical psychologist George Simon told Vanity Fair, "He's so classic that I'm archiving video clips of him to use in workshops." This puts Trump in the same category as a number of infamous dictators like Muammar Gaddafi, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Saddam Hussein. And although there are narcissists out there who entertain us, innovate, or create great art, when a narcissist is given immense power over people's lives, they can behave much differently. As the 2016 presidential election grows nearer we must ask ourselves, if elected president would Donald Trump act on the behalf of the will of the people, or would he behave more like a dictator—silencing any dissenting voices, perpetually refusing to compromise, and being oppressive to certain groups? To answer that, we should ask a little bit more about what makes a narcissist tick, and how they tend to behave when given free rein.

What is it exactly that makes someone a certifiable narcissist and not simply a person who has a healthy amount of confidence and a burning desire to achieve great goals? According to the Mayo Clinic, narcissistic personality disorder is "a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others."

Trump's shortage of empathy can be seen clearly by his stances on topics like immigration. Instead of recognizing that the data shows that most Mexican immigrants are not violent, but instead people simply looking for a place where actual opportunity exists, with a broad brush he claims that they are "criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc." In a similar vein, Trump has vowed to ban all Muslims from entering the country should he be elected. It appears that his lack of empathy has distorted his mind's ability to grasp the fact that the refugees he speaks of are actually seeking safety from the same murderous maniacs that he wants to keep out. Perhaps if Trump had relatives in countries like Syria and Iraq, he might understand the constant fear that most live under, and in turn become more willing to welcome them with open arms rather than leaving them to be slaughtered.

But a lack of empathy is just one part of narcissistic personality disorder. Just beneath the surface layer of overwhelming arrogance lies a delicate self-esteem that is easily injured by any form of criticism. We have all seen Trump unjustifiably lash out at a number of people with harsh and often extremely odd personal attacks. When he thought he had been treated unfairly by Fox News host and Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly, he responded by calling her a "bimbo" and later saying that she had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever." In response to the strange, misogynistic comments Kelly said that she "may have overestimated his anger management skills." If the news host would have pegged him as a bona fide narcissist from the beginning she might have expected such shamelessly flagrant behavior.

To be fair, it is certainly true that not all narcissists are terrible people. Some of our most beloved celebrities and musicians have been suspected narcissists, including Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, Kanye West, and even Alec Baldwin. Not only are these decent people, some have also done a lot of good through philanthropic work. Surely Donald Trump has more in common with these individuals than he does with a psychopath like Saddam Hussein.

There is no doubt that this has been true of the past, yet there is one critical difference between those people and Trump or Saddam. Only the latter two were in or are pursuing positions as heads of state—a role that grants enormous power over world affairs and people's lives. While a narcissistic personality might be one of the traits that allowed Trump to be such a successful businessman and reality TV star, it is also the trait that makes him potentially dangerous as a political leader.

What happens when another world leader who is a loose cannon doesn't give Trump the admiration that he feels he deserves? We can be sure that notoriously anti-American dictators like Kim Jong-un of North Korea or Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei aren't going to give him any respect, let alone praise. How would a President Trump react when he feels he is being put down or undermined? Will we see the start of World War III because the leader of the most important nation in the world doesn't feel that others are kissing his ass as much as they should be? Narcissistic personality disorder is known to have strong negative effects on relationships, and when it comes to being an effective and responsible world leader, diplomacy is everything.

If it is not clear how the promise of great power can change an essentially harmless narcissist into someone oppressive, let's see how Donald Trump's political views have changed thus far. Prior to this presidential race, most of us knew Donald Trump as a charismatic, cheeky, highly entertaining figure that seemed like anything but a bigot. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York told CNN that the Trump he knew, and the Trump New York knew, was nothing like the intolerant xenophobe he appears to be today. It is a well-known fact that in the past Trump was a registered democrat who was in favor of liberal causes like abortion rights and pals with the Clintons. But since the promise of power has consumed him, he has become the poster boy for ultra-right wing intolerance. This change in personality and core values perfectly illustrates how the promise of power can transform narcissists. And as the race for the Republican nominee progresses, it has become increasingly obvious that Trump's yearning to rule greatly exceeds his desire to "Make America Great Again," as his slogan says.

The position of President of the United States is one that requires great empathy, a certain amount of humility, the ability to preserve relationships, and a willingness to establish new ones. These are all qualities that the narcissist lacks, and with their absence comes danger. Do we really want to put all Americans, and even the entire world, at great risk by giving a narcissist the nuclear code? Donald Trump is very much like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and the presidency is his "one ring to rule them all." In this case we do not have the option of destroying the ring. The best we can strive for is keeping it out of the possession of those who cannot resist abusing its power.

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.

His fans 'would follow Trump off a cliff': 14 key traits revealed in psychological analysis of people who support the president

As he himself said even before he won the presidential election in 2016, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Unfortunately for the American people, this wild-sounding claim appears to be truer than not, at least for the majority of his supporters, and that is something that should disturb us. It should also motivate us to explore the science underlying such peculiar human behavior, so we can learn from it, and potentially inoculate against it.

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A neuroscientist explains how religious fundamentalism hijacks the brain

In moderation, religious and spiritual practices can be great for a person’s life and mental well-being. But religious fundamentalism—which refers to the belief in the absolute authority of a religious text or leaders—is almost never good for an individual. This is primarily because fundamentalism discourages any logical reasoning or scientific evidence that challenges its scripture, making it inherently maladaptive.

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They 'just want to watch the world burn': Psychological analysis reveals 14 key traits that explain Trump supporters

As he himself said even before he won the presidential election in 2016, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Unfortunately for the American people, this wild-sounding claim appears to be truer than not, at least for the majority of his supporters, and that is something that should disturb us. It should also motivate us to explore the science underlying such peculiar human behavior, so we can learn from it, and potentially inoculate against it.

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Expert: The evangelical belief that Trump is the messiah is more rampant -- and dangerous -- than you think

Psychologists have explained quite a lot about Donald Trump ’s political invincibility and the unconditional allegiance of his followers. One well-supported explanation is that the president keeps his base loyal by keeping them fearful. Through persistent fear-mongering, with scary messages like, “Illegal immigrants are murderers and rapists,” and “Islam hates us,” Trump gets to play the role of the great protector.

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A neuroscientist explains how Trump created a cult and radicalized its members

It is not inaccurate to say that Donald Trump has created a cult. Not all his supporters fall into this category, but there is certainly a subset of them that have shown they are unconditionally loyal and would follow their leader off a cliff. That kind of allegiance is dangerous. When a president is seen as a messiah who is infallible, democracy is at stake, and the threat of authoritarianism becomes real. For the cult member, no position is too extreme. 

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Neuroscientist explains why Christian evangelicals are wired to believe Donald Trump's gaslighting lies

President Donald Trump lies so often that it is no longer shocking when it happens, no matter how blatant or absurd the falsehood may be. Not only does Trump regularly exaggerate the truth, he frequently denies facts that can be observed directly from video or audio tapes. This has led some professionals to diagnose his lying as compulsive or pathological, and many psychologists have pointed out that he is constantly gaslighting his base—a term that refers to a strategic attempt to get others to question their direct experience of reality.

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A neuroscientist explains why Trump’s rhetoric is making the coronavirus even more deadly

No matter which way you lean politically, it is hard to dispute the fact that the president has not handled the pandemic optimally. His slow and negligent response has undoubtedly increased the death toll and the damage done, both economic and psychological. The only question is by how much. If the coronavirus had originated in the United States then we would not be able to accurately assess Trump’s response, because there would be nothing to fairly compare it to. However, we not only had examples of how bad it would get if we did not take the necessary precautions—from countries like China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy—some of those governments actually showed us exactly what we needed to do to handle it. Despite all the warnings and instructions, the United States went from having nearly the lowest number of cases of any infected country to being number one. In true Trumpian fashion we might say, “America is winning, and it’s not even close,” and this time it would be no exaggeration.

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The evangelical belief that Trump is the messiah is more rampant than you think — and dangerous

Psychologists have explained quite a lot about Donald Trump ’s political invincibility and the unconditional allegiance of his followers. One well-supported explanation is that the president keeps his base loyal by keeping them fearful. Through persistent fear-mongering, with scary messages like, “Illegal immigrants are murderers and rapists,” and “Islam hates us,” Trump gets to play the role of the great protector.

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Link between religious fundamentalism and brain damage established by scientists

study published in the journal Neuropsychologia has shown that religious fundamentalism is, in part, the result of a functional impairment in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex. The findings suggest that damage to particular areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive flexibility and openness—a psychology term that describes a personality trait which involves dimensions like curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness.

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A neuroscientist explains why Christian evangelicals are wired to believe Donald Trump's gaslighting lies

President Donald Trump lies so often that it is no longer shocking when it happens, no matter how blatant or absurd the falsehood may be. Not only does Trump regularly exaggerate the truth, he frequently denies facts that can be observed directly from video or audio tapes. This has led some professionals to diagnose his lying as compulsive or pathological, and many psychologists have pointed out that he is constantly gaslighting his base—a term that refers to a strategic attempt to get others to question their direct experience of reality.

Keep reading... Show less