The Terrorist Brain

The Neurobiology of Religious Terrorism

Todd Murphy, Researching Behavioral Neuroscientist



Understanding the mind of a suicidal terrorist is a special challenge in psychology. Not only do their actions show a highly aggressive personality, but their motivations seem to outweigh even the imperative for self-preservation.

The profile of the suicide bomber is not at all simple. We think of them as maniacs; madmen driven by national and religious hatred, or a simplistic ‘will to power’. Yet, when soldiers do the same thing fighting in a cause we support, we’re quick to quote our own culture’s holy books: “There can be no greater love than to lay down one’s life…”

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The suicide himself is usually not forced to his actions. He is not held prisoner, nor forced at gunpoint to complete his mission. The Kamikaze of the second world war was motivated differently. They were told that they were defending their homes and families from imminent destruction by US forces, and that they had a chance to stop the American fleet from arriving in Japan. If they succeeded, their families would escape danger. For the contemporary Islamic terrorist, no such threat exists. Their failure will not mean the end of their way of life, nor the deaths of their families.

So, how to account for their unprecedented dedication? Or their ‘greatest love’?

The answer lies in the unique psychology of the religious killer.

Fortunately, a there was a study that addressed the issue:

“I Would Kill in God’s Name:”  Role of Sex, Weekly Church Attendance, Report of Religious Experience, and Limbic Lability”  M.A. Persinger, Perceptual And Motor Skills, 1997, 85, 128-130 

The study is part of a larger research effort in the neurological bases of religious experience, including religious personalities, religious conversions, and now, extreme religious views.

It was done by administering a set of questionnaires to 1480 university students that asked about a wide range of religious beliefs, habits and behaviors. It also asked about how often the subjects had more common, ‘altered state’ experiences, like deja vu, the sense of a presence, electric-like sensations, and many others. Taken together, these latter experiences (complex partial epileptic signs) give a measure of a person’s “Limbic Lability”.

The statistical analysis involved taking each questionnaire that included a ‘yes’ response to an item that asked if they would be willing to kill for God.

All the questionnaires that included a ‘yes’ to this were examined to see what other items emerged in association with a willingness to kill in ‘His’ name.

Four factors emerged.

1) Having had a religious experience.

2) Weekly church attendance (religious orthodoxy).

3) Being Male.

4) Limbic lability (which will be explained).

The next step was to look at all the questionnaires that showed all four traits, creating a second group.

44% of this second group stated that they would kill another person if God told them to.

The study was based on university students, and if generalizable, then one out of 20 Canadian university students would be willing to kill another person if they were to attribute the instruction to God.

Let’s examine these factors, one-by-one.

In dismissing religious experience, both modern scientists and politicians miss a factor that offers a more powerful motivation than patriotism, national defense, greed, or military pride.

The absolute conviction that firsthand experience creates. Religious experience (1).

Religious experience can take many forms. In its most intense manifestations, it can involve seeing God, or hearing his voice. Out-of-body experiences, a lucid or exceptionally powerful dream, sensing the presence of an angel, and even moments of creative inspiration.

It can also appear as an emotional peak that might happen during a religious meeting, or a political meeting with religious overtones.

In the aftermath of a religious experience, the individual will almost inevitably interpret it terms of their religious or spiritual views(2). Whatever the idea the person uses most readily will lend a context to their epiphany. From then on, it acquires an ethos of absolute truth. It ‘feels’ like the truth. At present, many Islamic religious leaders are being quite vocal that violence and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam, and wonder openly at how terrorists reconcile their actions with the teachings of Islam, with its constant rejoinders to compassion and mercy.

The answer probably lies in the sense of certainty that a religious experience can create. They do not need to consider the teachings of the Koran. Instead, they ‘feel’ the world in terms of their religious ‘awakening’, a direct message from God; one that supersedes scripture. All Islamic teachings are seen through its lens. When the idea that dominates their world is that of Jihad, then war and destruction are seen as a ‘higher’ form of compassion.

Before we jump to the conclusion that we could never see any wisdom or compassion in being aggressive, we might recall how we support, in our minds, Jesus as he drove the money-changers from the temple of Jerusalem. That was an act of violence, guided by a higher wisdom. So, in Truman’s mind, was the bombing of Hiroshima. The step from higher wisdom to violence is all too common. Anyone who has ever gone too far in punishing a child has made it.

For the Jihadi, like anyone else, the full range of religious experiences is quite large. A person might hear a religious statement, and feel a parasthesia, a tingling or electric-like feeling, or more commonly, an intense burst of emotion. The statement, whatever it is, suddenly acquires tremendous force. The person having the experience is easily convinced that the statement is true.

The powerful emotions experienced during a political rally, given a religious interpretation, make its goal or theme into a religious truth. At least insofar as the person will then accept the message as part of their own faith.

If it glorifies the individual; if it ‘saves’ them, or makes them feel that they are one of the “chosen few” or the “anointed” or that their service to God is special, the person can begin to identify themselves more as the one ‘touched by god’ than simply as a person. Once a person identifies with God, their own life can actually be seen as being in the way, a hindrance to unity with “Him”.

Suicide is sanctioned when it is believed to a part of God’s plan, and the person who commits it in his name may seem to be spiritually elevated; a high and holy being.

“A leading Islamist authority, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, recently explained the distinction this way: attacks on enemies are not suicide operations but “heroic martyrdom operations”. (3)

In all probability, Jihad suicides are not motivated by a desire to elicit fear. Their military superiors may be, but the individual is much more likely to be motivated by the desire for an intangible, personal, reward.

The desire to experience, once again, the peak moments of their lives.

People who have had religious experiences will often do whatever it takes to re-capture those moments.

Indeed, there are precedents for suicide in this context. One type of religious experience (far more intense than the type that can occur in moments of extreme religious fervor) is the now-well-known Near-Death Experience (NDE). There have been reports of suicides by people who have had deeply spiritual experiences while clinically dead, but were later revived. While the overwhelming majority of NDE experiences say that they would never consider it, they also often have a deep longing to return to the blissful state they had while they were having their NDEs.

History records many examples of suicide for religious reasons. The Jim Jones cult, the mass-suicide of Jewish Zealots under siege by the Roman General Vespasian at Masada, the Vietnamese Patriarch who immolated himself in protest during the Vietnam War, Joan of Arc’s refusal to recant her preaching, based on her visions, even though it meant being burned at the stake.

The point is that religious experience can introduce priorities for a person that are quite ‘larger than life.’ So much so that death can lose it’s repellent quality. It can even become quite exalted. Both the killer and the killed can seem trivial compared to God’s larger plan. Revulsion at suicide in “His” service can seem almost self-indulgent.

Islamic tradition records that having visions can help a Jihadi to fulfill his mission. The very word assassin derives from the Arabic word Hashishim, a medieval word that referred to a group of assassins who were offered hashish-induced visions as a preview of the heavenly rewards that awaited them after giving their lives in Jihad.

In fact, the relationship between the leaders and the individual terrorists attackers is probably better compared to a Guru and his disciples than a general and their troops.

Today’s terrorists have probably replaced hashish with emotionally intense moments during rallies and prayer meetings. Both can have profound effects on the limbic system, and both can cement beliefs solidly into place.

The suicidal Jihadi perceives themselves as making the supreme sacrifice for God. They believe they will enjoy special rewards in the hereafter, and, because of the architecture all human brains share, they have a sense that the fulfillment for the longing their peak experience created will happen at death. Having the sense of being on a mission from God in dying, they simply cannot imagine that they will not attain a “peace which passeth understanding”.

Further, terrorist orthodoxy would interpret the suicidal Jihadi as a traitor against god should he change his mind, once he had volunteered. Social pressures to follow through are enormous.

The Jihadi who, in a moment of fervor or deep reflection, decides to give his life for the holy war, may have little choice but to follow through. Like the Japanese kamikaze who chose to pilot his plane to its destination, the Jihadi remains on the course he is given.

Such a Jihadi will either not have been exposed to alternative interpretations for their behavior, or will reject them out of hand due to their unorthodox origin.

When confronted with vital decisions, the orthodox ally with orthodoxy.

Because people who have had religious experience use them as the benchmark for their spirituality, rather than the scriptures or teachings, they will often be very reticent to share their experiences and missions with others. Most people who have had deep religious experiences feel that others just ‘do not understand’. With phrases like ‘there are none so deaf as those who will not hear’, and “you shall not cast your pearls before swine”, people tend to keep very quiet about the sense of destiny that their religious experience gives them.

In more practical terms, they very likely prefer to avoid the challenges to their self identity that challenges to their ideology would create. A bit like a child who avoids showing off their writing in class for fear of ridicule.

The need for security among religious terrorists can acquire a sacred connotation in this way. In relating to their fellow Muslims, they may see themselves as consecrated holy men, an ‘inner circle’, moving among a spiritless herd of sheep, if they relate to them at all.


The item in the study asked about weekly church attendance is worth looking at. The study was done in Canada, in a predominantly Christian community (Sudbury, Ontario). It would seem to evidence traditional, orthodox, or institutionalized beliefs.

Going to church every week is, in this paper, interpreted as evidence of religious orthodoxy.

Like the churchgoer, the Jihadi embraces a set of beliefs they share in common with a community, and they participate in the life of that community regularly. This now refers to their own, ‘inner’ circle, and not that of other Muslims.

Orthodoxy in belief is reinforced by subtle social rewards from the community almost constantly. Leaders within the community are also the ones who demonstrate the deepest understanding of its beliefs. Its heroes are the ones who do the most for the cause. Missionary work, charity, and religious practice are good sacrifices, but nothing, absolutely nothing, compares with martyrdom.

This is where some beliefs peculiar to Islam come into play.

Not only does it sanction war in the name of Allah, but it promises acceptance into heaven to those who die in these wars, called Jihads, and considers them to be martyrs. This allows suicides to see themselves as martyrs, as well. In fact, they probably consider themselves as the highest form of martyr.

Although the term “Mohajadinn” is usually used for fighters in Jihads, we will use the term “Jihadi” here, so as to avoid accidental pejorative reference to legitimate Islamic freedom fighters, who appear regularly in recent history.


One of the features of the religious killer is that they are usually, but not always, male. One exception to this has been the female suicide bomber in Sri Lanka who attempted to assassinate its president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, in 1999.

The male brain differs from the female brain in that it seems to be less “multitasking” (4). When a male is engaged in a task, fewer brain structures are activated, in most cases, than a female brain engaged in the same task.

Males, therefore, are better able to maintain the orthodoxy required, and to exclude items from their thoughts (denial), like, for example, the long-term consequences of their actions.

The dominant point of reference will always be the religious experience, and the framework of beliefs used to interpret them.

The male brain seems better adapted to handle the ‘single-pointedness’ religious mania requires.


Temporal lobe lability refers to a person’s sensitivity to altered states of consciousness. I don’t mean the dramatic ones, such as religious visions. I mean the more subtle ones, with phenomena like deja vu, ‘sensing a presence’, pins and needles sensations, fleeting visions during twilight sleep, and other common episodes (5).

These occur in a continuum across the human population (5, 27). Some are very sensitive, having these experiences very often, and others never have them at all.

Not all people who have these experiences also have religious experiences, but almost everyone who has had a religious experience has (6, 26).

In the body of research to date (7, 28), these experiences appear when two structures within the temporal lobes have their normal communications between one another disturbed. This can happen between the two hemispheres, or between two structures , within the limbic system (deep in the temporal lobes), or between a deep structure and the surface of the temporal lobes.

In this model (vectorial hemisphericity and interhemispheric intrusions (8, 9), the event of the religious experience is likened to an extremely small epileptic event that stays in the temporal lobes of the brain. These have been called “microseizures” (10), though they aren’t really seizures at all.

Like larger epileptic seizures, these experiences make lasting changes in the brain (11). The personality of the person, their ‘sense of self’, is forever changed as their limbic system now has a few pathways (matrices of neurons) ‘burned in’ in a process known as ‘kindling’. Pathways that relate to the human sense of self.

The limbic system plays a crucial role in the production of thought and emotion. It also deals in two rather subtle phenomena. Meaningfulness and contextualization (12). These direct our thoughts and feelings into recurring patterns unique to each individual, and with them, unique behavior patterns.

The connotations of words are processed through their meanings and in the context in which we hear them. The sense that an experience “means something” or that words ‘mean something more’ than they say, are two examples of somewhat raw experiences of meaningfulness.

If a thought feels meaningful, then it will try to find a context for itself. The more meaningful, the larger the context must be. God’s will becomes larger, or more important, than life itself.

A more salient point at this juncture is that the religious experience begs the largest possible context, even if only in one’s thought’s. The largest context, for Peoples of the Book, (to coin a phrase) has always been God, and “His” whole world.

In order to encompass their experience the person must make use of some rather exotic ideas. Ideas which are as far from their ordinary experience as their peak moments.

For the Islamic terrorist, these are well-known. Jihad, doing God’s will, martyrdom, etc. Death. In ‘His’ name.


In recent years, it has emerged that the human psyche can be affected by seismic activity, or rather, seismic (or tectonic) strain (13, 14).

The more earthquakes and tremors in a given area, the more often the earth’s magnetic field changes, and that can have an impact on how our brains function.

Our brains are sensitive to changes in the earth’s magnetic field because they contain large numbers of organically grown magnetite crystals.

By coincidence or design, patterns seem to appear in the geomagnetic field, and these seem to have some overlap with the magnetic signals that are created when our brains are engaged in normal electrical firing. Specifically, in the limbic system. Exposure to the earth’s magnetic field is ‘chronic’, meaning constant and long-term. Chronic exposure to changing magnetic fields could make the populations of seismically active areas demonstrate a higher-than-average limbic lability. In other words, areas with many earthquakes and tremors are more likely to produce a population willing to kill in God’s name, all other conditions being equal.

According to the Israeli Seismic Network’s “Galilee” data set, Israel had 28 earthquakes in one three-year period. (1987 to 1991). That’s about one every five weeks. (15)

One possibility that cannot be discounted presently is that the Israeli / Palestinian territories might produce populations with either higher than normal limbic lability, or that their limbic phenomena might show specific patterns whose behavioral correlates with aggressive thoughts (ideation) and behavior.

Although so far, there have been no statistical studies of temporal-lobe-based behaviors in seismically active areas, the notion has been considered with California’s southern lake county designated as a good area to carry out such a study.

Eventual studies in this field may allow a meaningful measure of the aggressiveness of in seismically active areas, and with that, an estimate of the size of the population within the Palestinian minority willing to go to the furthest extremes, “in God’s name”.

There are three cultures best known for the glorification of suicide, the Arabic-speaking terrorist sub-culture, the Aztecs, who exalted the act of volunteering as a human sacrifice, and medieval Japan, where suicide reached the status of a cult behavior within the Shinto religion, complete with its own ceremony.

All of these areas are subject to frequent seismic activity.


1) Given a sufficiently large population, large numbers of individuals who fit the criteria (about 1 in 20, based on the Canadian data) should be readily available. When the data is corrected for local seismically, we should find that the number increases noticeably. Any estimates based on this data should be reduced substantially in recognition that suicide is a less-probable behavior, all other conditions being equal, than homicide. However, the relative incidence of each behavior in normal populations may not necessarily provide meaningful estimates. Suicide is prohibited in normal religious belief, but sanctioned, even suggested, for the Jihadi.

2) Jihadi who have had a religious experience and fit the other criteria should be much more willing to volunteer than others, due to their personal sense of destiny, which martyrdom will appear to fulfill.

3) The more successful attacks this group performs, the more willing their volunteers will be, as they see their predecessors attaining the highest spiritual promotion, while they themselves only stand and wait.

In short, the territorial and ideological conditions in the Middle East may favor the production of populations willing to kill for God.

These considerations may help us to see that terrorists are not entirely the products of hate-mongers, and that they may not beyond help and reform.





(1) Persinger, Michael A., “Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs”, Praeger, 1987

(2) Persinger, M.A., “;Vectorial Cerebral Hemisphericity as Differerential Sources for The Sensed Presence, Mystical Experiences and Religious Conversions”; Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1993, 76, 915-930

3) The Jerusalem Post July 27, 2001

4) Moir, Anne, Ph.D. & Jessel, David “Brain Sex: The Real Difference between Men & Woman” Laurel Publications, 1991

5) Persinger, Michael A.,& Makarec, Katherine “Complex partial Signs As A continuum From Normals To Epileptics: Normative Data And Clinical Populations” Journal Of Clinical Psychology, Jan 1993, 49 (1) 33-37

6) Persinger, M.A., “People Who report Religious Experiences May Also Display Enhanced Temporal-Lobe Signs”. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1984, 58, 963-975

7) Persinger, M.A. “Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis.”, Perceptual and Motor Skills 1983, 57, 1255-1262

8) Persinger, M.A. “;Enhanced Incidence of the “;Sensed Presence”; in People Who have learned to Meditate: Support for the Right Hemispheric Intrusion Hypothesis”; Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1992, 75, 1308-1310

9) Persinger, Michael A. Bureau, Yves, R.J. Peredery, Oksana, P., Richards, Pauline M. “;The sensed Presence as Right Hemispheric Intrusions into the Left Hemispheric Awareness of self: An Illustrative Case Study.”; Perceptual And Motor Skills, 1994, 78, 999-1009

10) Persinger, Michael A. “Striking EEG Profiles From Single Episodes of Glossolalia and Transcendental Meditation” Perceptual & Motor Skills. 1984, 58, 127-133

11) Persinger, Michael A., “Near-Death Experiences: Determining the Neuroanatomical Pathways by Experiential Patterns, and Simulation In Experimental Settings.”; Appeared in “Healing: Beyond Suffering or Death.” Ministry of Mental Health Publications, Quebec, Canada, 1994.

12) Miller, Robert, “Cortico-Hippocampal Interplay And The Representation of Contexts in the Human Brain” Springer-Verag, 1991

13) M.A. Persinger, “Out-of Body -Like experiences are More Probable in People With Elevated Complex Partial Epileptic-Like Signs During Periods of Enhanced Geomagnetic Activity: A Nonlinear Effect’ Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1995, 80, 563-569

14) Conesa, Jorge, “Isolated Sleep paralysis, vivid dreams, and geomagnetic influence: II Perceptual And Motor Skills, 1997, 85, 579-584

15) Link no longer active.