Hate is our brain’s way of trying too hard to keep us alive, researcher says

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Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate Battle, Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me,” Southern Nationalist, and Thor’s Hammer flags, Charlottesville, Aug. 12, 2017. Photo by Anthony Crider/flickr

According to Michael Niconchuk, anyone with a brain is capable of being hateful.

A researcher with Beyond Conflict, a Boston-based lab that approaches conflict resolution across the world through brain and behavioral sciences, Niconchuk, 30, once met a young Syrian who fled his refugee camp in Jordan to go back home and join ISIS.


“He didn’t want to be in Jordan. He wanted to protect his home,” Niconchuk told an audience last week at Shaare Tefila Congregation in Olney. “Every day, sitting in the refugee camp, he was thinking,  ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ This young man taught me that, in some cases, hate is very much about defending what you love, and not about attacking what you don’t.”

That’s not so different from you and me, he said. “I’ve interacted with dozens of terrorists, and all of them, from a psychopathological perspective, are completely normal. They are normal people with normal brains.”

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With hate-based violence on the rise, Shaare Tefila saw this discussion, dubbed “The Neuroscience of Hate,” as necessary. Recent mass murders “heighten the awareness of the question ‘Where does hatred come from?’” said Rabbi Jonah Layman.

Conflict researcher Michael Niconchuk, center, says what motivates ISIS fighters are not so different from the rest of us.
Photo by Connor Graham

Niconchuk said that we cannot ask why people hate without understanding how we survive and bond with others. The brain, he said, has one job, which is to keep its host alive. Though only 1 to 2 percent of our brain activity is intentional, Niconchuk said its survival resources include its ability to create associations, which impacts who we associate with.


“Those things are learned well before you have control of those things. It has to do with upbringing, it has to do with environment,” said Niconchuk. “It takes a long time to undo those categorizations we make because your brain has put them” into the 98 percent unintentional brain behavior.

Niconchuk said the brain is not good at distinguishing between perceived threats and real threats. A perceived threat will cause the same physiological responses in the body as an actual threat.

“I actually think it’s harder to work with certain populations in the U.S. than it has been to work with ISIS fighters,” Niconchuk said. “There’s this exceptionalism, even when you’re talking about white hatred.” Whereas in parts of the world that have lived through violence for generations, those conversations are easily had.

“I started this work thinking about the rest of the world, not suburban Maryland,” he continued. “But this is where the conversations need to be happening because this is where the violence is happening.”

Shaare Tefila congregant Amy Snyder said Niconchuk’s approach was “eye opening. It put a lot of things about hate in perspective, so that it really becomes more clinical than personal.”

Silver Spring resident Janet Van Dyke said her biggest takeaway was “understanding the survival instinct of the brain and how that makes us form opinions about people and how we perceive them as the other, and how that’s universal.”

She said she was determined to keep fighting against hate.

“I think the challenge for me is how to address that in other people,” she said. “’How do you gently approach people with other views and foster a more loving and less hateful narrative?”

As Niconchuk explained, “It’s hard to talk about why someone hates, because you have to understand why they are threatened. For anyone who thinks they are incapable of hate, I think they are wrong. I think we’re all capable of hate just as we’re all capable of violence,” he said. “This is not to justify or defend people who have committed acts of violence. It is to say they are responding to the weird construction of reality they have created.”

Connor Graham is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of WJW.

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