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Eric Leuthardt M.D.

The Neuroscience of War

Why we avoid personal conflict, but go to war.

It is sometimes hard to keep track of all the conflicts going on in the world. Russia invades Crimea, Syria is a humanitarian nightmare, North Korea keeps popping off crappy missiles, and let's not forget all the terrible things that the media doesn’t cover in Africa. All these scenarios lead to untold misery and the outcomes rarely mesh with the original motivations of going to war. Another case in point—Iraq.

While nations and groups are acting badly, most individuals are not. Having traveled to numerous places in the world, I have generally found people to be civil. Most people avoid conflict when they can because it is uncomfortable. So the question is why do we avoid negative interactions with others, yet seem to think that mass conflicts are often justified?

Recent studies on how humans process risk and the how the brains of psychopaths function may shed light on this weird conjunction of “I don’t want to be rude” and “lets go bomb’em.” A group out of Korea (Jung, Sul, and Kim) did an interesting functional MRI study where people either made a financial bet for themselves or for others. The findings demonstrated that people used wholly separate neural circuits when they were making risky decisions for themselves versus for somebody else. When gambling for oneself, a specific almond-shaped organ in the brain known as the amygdala became active. This little spot located behind the eyes is critical for how we process emotions—the feelings of fear and happiness that we assign to other information coming into our perceptions. When we make a bet for someone else, a different region comes into play known as the dorsal medial prefrontal lobe. This is an area that is associated with more cold logic and decision-making.

On first scratch, great—we are emotional when it comes to ourselves, and rational when it comes to others. Being rational is a good thing, right?

Enter the psychopath.

There have been numerous studies on the difference between the brains of normal people and those of psychopaths. The key difference—the amygdala. It appears that when a psychopath processes information there is a significant lack of activation within their emotional centers. They can look at very disturbing images and the expected brain response in their amygdala is absent. A key difference is that our emotions are not only what make us feel good and bad about experiences in our life; the amygdala and its associated circuits are also essential for connecting with other humans. When one’s emotional processing is blunted it leads to behavior that is disconnected, cold, and often criminal. If a psychopath wants something and if the easiest way to get it requires hurting someone, so be it.

Bringing it back to the difference between not forgetting to leave a tip and deploying military force, when we interact with people there is a necessary emotional context. Direct face-to-face interactions necessarily involve our emotional circuitry and to a degree enforce a more civil behavior. As proof of this, think of how email and texting arguments get ugly. In part the emotional context is often removed and that lost connection leads to hurtful statements that everyone ends up regretting later. Similarly, when we are making risky choices that involve “others” we use different resources in our brain that may divorce us from our emotional connection with the people it affects. So just as we should hold off on sending that email until we have had some time to consider its repercussions, we should collectively pause to process the human consequences of a military intervention. While it is an emotional plea, it is also the least psychopathic.


About the Author

Eric Leuthardt, M.D., is the director of the Center of Innovation in Neuroscience and Technology at Washington University School of Medicine, where he researches brain-computer interfaces.