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The Cognitive Neuroscience of a Lynching

The science of hate can help us realise who the bigger criminal is. Is it the lynchers alone? Should the instigators bear more blame? And should an apathetic government be held complicit?

It is truly tragic that it takes an entire limb to be cut off, nerves to start regrowing and sensations of pain to return before the brain realises what it has done to the fingers. Credit: Patricio_/pixabay

It is truly tragic that it takes an entire limb to be cut off, nerves to start regrowing and sensations of pain to return before the brain realises what it has done to the fingers. Credit: Patricio_/pixabay

[Editor’s note] Parts of this articles have been contested by Shruti Muralidhar in a rebuttal published by The Wire. To catch up, here are some links:


In an event of traumatic accidents such as a car crash, injury to joints, bones and soft tissues can be accompanied by injury to nerves that mediate sensations such as touch, pain and temperature in the skin. As a neuroscientist, I was once studying a new method to repair these damaged peripheral nerves that had been injured in the shoulder joint, rendering the arm and hand to lose sensation and movement control. The aim was to assess a new method of nerve repair using surgery and compare the outcome with traditional methods such as sutures.

Whether this method was more or less effective than the traditional surgeries, I was introduced to a phenomenon called autotomy. It is a self-mutilating behaviour directed towards the body region with damaged nerves. Despite the hand being physically attached to the body, the patient’s brain does not receive the information related to sensation from the hand due to the damaged nerve supply which makes the brain to disown the body part and treat it like an accessory organ. In some instances, this can lead to chewing off or consciously cutting that body part devoid of sensory feedback. In the absence of information exchange from the hand and the brain, a new altered communication pattern harbours reduced neuronal synaptic connections or ‘empty space’ in the brain corresponding to the injured part. This reduced feedback produces confounding signals to the brain creating sensations of pain and abnormal-unpleasant sensations called dysesthesias in the hand and creates the desire to self-mutilate.

Trying to understand the mechanism of this self-mutilation and disownment of a major body organ has many parallels with the current socio-political context of the Indian majoritarian government. Wherein the minorities, a part of the ‘nation body’, seem to be a threat to the central control. However, the difference here is that there is no real initial injury and the confounding signals are fabricated ethnic and economic insecurities resulting in the elimination of citizens (in a crude sense through mob lynching).

Why does the brain trick ourselves into believing that an inherent part of us is foreign? That the part is something fundamentally different from our own self and creates the need to be eliminated for the upkeep of what it thinks as the primary corporeal entity?

A mob lynching isn’t the same as any physical harm or a killing. It needs several components to come together: attackers, spectators and outnumbered victim(s). It needs the public humiliation of the victim and, unlike a lawful process of punishment, a lynching is a demonstration that the sentiments of the attackers are beyond the law or the government. In the attempt to rationalise such mob killings, it becomes important to understand how the brains of those involved, including the spectators’, work. For one, the neural processes of thoughts and cognition of the people involved in action have to be dissimilar to the processes of the people that decide that the lynching will occur.

The psychology of a mob comes from a group getting excited to attack one or more individuals through intimidation, isolation and humiliation. A classic example is in the movie Frankenstein (1931), where the villagers join forces with farm tools and torches to attack the monster. The contemporary mob is initiated by rumours spread through communication platforms like WhatsApp, often followed by discrediting any counterarguments that could weaken the rumour.

Victims

Whether the victims die or survive the lynching, they are almost always bent on their knees or close to the ground, palms joined together, begging for mercy and often soaked in blood. Their gesture and facial expressions suggest that they will do and say anything to save themselves from more harm. They seldom hold their ideals of faith or politics against the mob to die – as if it will be a noble death – and are prepared to hail any creature to their defence.

A tragic account of a survivor’s story by James Cameron of the black racial lynching in the US in the early 20th century shined light on the emotional psychology at play during the attack and how the brain makes decisions.

The victim’s brain, paralysed by fear, inhibits all movement and prevents him from running away from the attack. An attempt to rationalise the racial attack by the victim and its incomprehension can lead to a long term memory consolidation that links previous experiences of the people in the mobs with the current situation. At least at the beginning of the attack, the victim has the ability to recognise familiar faces, who in Cameron’s story were “schoolmates, and customers whose lawns he had mowed and whose shoes he had polished, as they tried to break down the jailhouse door with sledgehammers in the crowd. Many police officers milled outside with the crowd, joking. Inside, fifty guards with guns waited downstairs.”

However, during the beating and dragging, the mentally and physically traumatised brain fails to register who exactly is present and is itself ‘participating’ in the lynching. In Cameron’s story, the victim, a devout Catholic, recollects a voice of an unknown woman who had tried to save him from the mob but later believes that it could have been the Virgin Mary. At the assault’s peak, he could have been hallucinating.

For the survivors, returning to life as it was before is not just extremely difficult (as often their family members and homes have been targeted) but also dangerous. After the Second World War, anti-Jewish riots broke out in multiple cities in Poland, such as in Kielce, Poland, in July 1946. When more than a hundred Jews returned to the city, residents feared that more would come to reclaim their homes and once-looted belongings. In fear, archaic anti-Jewish myths of Jewish rituals that required murdering Christians for using their blood in religious ceremonies were propagated. As a result, more Jews were killed, and the Polish Jews forced to conclude that there was no future for them in the country.

In some instances, particularly with young men, the psychological scarring deters the victim against passivity and forces her to learn survival tactics. They understand the ‘consequences’ of powerlessness and seek to defy their fate, often by engaging with fringe groups to protect what they think threatens their identity and masculinity.

Perpetrators

The perpetrators are the people that are hired or spontaneously perpetrate a lynching by others in leadership positions. This category of ‘participants’ isn’t an individual but a group that unites to act as a single entity. Within this group, there is trust, recognition, validation, power and anonymity for its members. Every action and thought of a group of this sort, like the workings of an insect swarm, consists solely of achieving their shared objective.

An automated synchronisation of vocalisations, expressions and movements produces a reflexive emotional contagion in the mob. This synchrony leads to the formation of a strong affective connection. Psychologists have shown that this reflex is more subtle and automated, and that it is not the result of conscious reasoning and analysis. Further, there is an explicit response – mediated by verbal communication – and an implicit response – using non-verbal communication – that together manipulate the affective state of an individual. This information is processed in the limbic cortex of the brain. Neuroscientists have also shown that mirror neurons, using the same mechanism that activates empathetic response for others’ pain, mimic the goal-oriented movements by activating the premotor cortex. The amygdala, a part of the brain related to empathy, is thought to be involved with the premotor cortex in initiating a mob response that requires physical action.

A shared body state is observed through. These neurological processes give rise to a ‘shared body state’ that initiates the coupling of the perpetrators’ minds and also sustains it in the course of a lynching. In studying the psychology of aggression, a physical attack such as this is compared to a feline instinct – one that prepares the body for the kill by ignoring other environmental distractions, inhibits instincts against hurting or killing another human, and merely focuses on zeroing in on the kill. And after the attack, the validation of the act through a sense of righteousness gives the perpetrators pride and abates the post-kill guilt. Ultimately, the anonymity that each member of the group is able to claim helps protect their ‘hero’, whose attack would have been the last or most impactful.

The instigators

These are those who help the perpetrators and take part in the process directly by providing the means to conduct the attack – or indirectly by vocalising or spreading anti-victim sentiments in an attempt to encourage the perpetrators.

Given the recent uptick in prejudicial and violent sentiments against minorities and critics of the government, tools like WhatsApp have taken over from word of mouth and the print medium in propagating mostly fake news stories to transmit incendiary material. The transmitters use pictures from previously unrelated incidents, both from India and abroad, and morph them to make it appear as if it occurred in recent history. For example, fake images from fictional films and previous riots used in the context of the West Bengal riots.

In most cases, there is always at least one primary instigator who is the principal source of the aggression. If they’re physically present during a lynching, such instigators may be a part of the crowd and may even physically abstain from engaging in the act. However, they do spur the attack on by shouting provocative slogans against the victims or their identity.

Also, the number of perpetrators and the number of instigators are usually significantly different.

The spectators

Spectators are the bystanders who witness a lynching without participating in it – but also do little or nothing to stanch the violence. They are often more in number than the perpetrators or the instigators. Not all of them might support the lynching but they are also often too scared or confused to intervene. Greg Marinovich, a South African photojournalist recalled his first account of a mob attack in a migrant workers’ hostel, where a group of 15-20 men lynched a man, stabbed him and clubbed him while Marinovich himself captured the horrifying pictures through his camera. “Although, as a journalist, my reaction was fine, as a human being I felt I’d really let myself down. I was gutted that I’d been such a coward,” he recalled later.

James Ellen, in his book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000), discusses his photographs from the lynching events of Black Americans from 1182 to 1950. A record number of incidents (3,436) had been reported in this period and most of them had gone unreported. The photographs depicted perpetrators and bystanders, and which were often proudly circulated as postcards. An image that particularly struck Ellen was of a male bystander who thought that the ‘lynching festivities’ would make for an entertaining evening with women.

Many other spectators have recalled public emergency situations from events of stoning, stabbing and even domestic violence after the fact. For most people, it doesn’t occur to them to do anything, let alone place themselves in mortal danger. At the same time, Ellen’s book discusses how the photographers, in retrospect, wished that they had stood up against the attackers and avoided the guilt they’d now bear for the rest of their lives.

The rescuers

These are the people who come to the defence of the victim, often at the risk of becoming targets themselves. They are often few in number.

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Cognitive processes in the elimination of the self

It is important to understand the science of hate before we can theorise a deterrent for such events or deliver justice to the many recent victims of lynchings, especially when an individual or two is not directly responsible for the attack. It can help to understand who the real criminal is. Is it the final laceration by an individual from the mob that killed the victim? Or are the instigators the real criminals? Further, is the ruling government an accomplice for having failed to punish these killers for what they are?

It certainly helps to understand the brain’s decision-making mechanisms, especially in circumstances when it considers an entity, such as a compatriot, to be foreign while it is itself in pursuit of a short-term gain. In fact, even in the short term, the act is likely to be counterproductive.

How does the human brain decide what is critical at a given time and what needs to be saved, even if that means eliminating a part of its own? A decision made not in favour of the ‘national body’ can be considered deceitful and will adversely affect the brain and the body both.

Apart from self-mutilated hands, people are likely to be more familiar with the autoimmune disorders that also trigger rheumatoid arthritis and Lupus. Infections are the primary reason immunity exists. So it seems justified to have an active immune system – such as activated T-cells responding to an infection attack. Even then there are specialised regulatory T-cells that help moderate this auto-immune activation by suppressing other immune cells. In rare instances, this system fails, causing inflammation in healthy tissue and joints and resulting in an autoimmune disorder.

The events currently unfolding all over India suggest we have activated precisely this form of autoimmunity. And the disorder has since been identifying its own citizens as disease-causing antigens and tricking the majority into creating an ethnic elimination response. This is rendering our entire social structure diseased.

It is truly tragic that it takes an entire limb to be cut off, nerves to start regrowing and sensations of pain to return before the brain realises what it has done to the fingers.

Sumaiya Shaikh is a medical scientist with a PhD in neuroscience from Australia. She currently works as a postdoctoral fellow in Sweden and is the editor of AltNews’s science section.