Lets Start From Biology
A first principle is defined as "a basic, foundational proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption".
This may be difficult to get your head around, so I'll put it more simply: first principles are ideas we work from which are regarded as more
fundamental than other ideas. In other words, biology and evolution are first principles when it comes to the way human beings function. Thus, the
following conversation about ISIS, Terrorism and Trauma, will be the "fleshing out" from this first idea - from the fundamental reality of humans
being biological organisms.
A quick Look At The Brain
When we think about human beings, and the nature of our human experience, we can make out two basic aspects: feeling and thinking.
The 'thinking' mind is ultimately based upon memory systems centered in the hippocampus, whereas feeling systems are derived from threat-detection
systems centered in the amygdala. Thus, our "ontological" categories of feeling vs. thinking can be correlated with the brain systems of the
amygdala and the hippocampus.
So far so good (hopefully!)? The amygdala is older, as it can be found in the most primitive reptiles, which are evolutionary more ancient than
mammals. However, the hippocampus is fairly old as well. These two systems complement one another in that the amygdala detects threat, as well as
what's useful for the organism, whereas the hippocampus provides context by making distinctions between one situation and another. In this way, the
amygdala is regarded as "stereotyped", in that it triggers responses based upon past experiences of threats; whereas the hippocampus allows for a
deeper analysis of any particular situation.
It needs to pointed out that the Amygdala is not all there is. The Amygdalas axons (nerve fibers) connect with other subcortical parts of the brain,
as well as connect very deeply with the front and right side of the brain. In humans, the amygdala is a central feature of whats called the
"ventral-medial" system: brain structures that are lower, and in the 'middle' of the brain, are more functionally connected; on the other hand,
the hippocampus sends more axons upwards and laterally, whats called the "dorsolateral complex" - dorso, meaning "top", and lateral, meaning
"side". These two brain systems in humans also roughly correspond to the functional and structural differences between the right hemisphere and left
hemisphere: the right is more involved in threat detection, bodily states, and subtle contextual features of an environment (that is, is more involved
with the Amygdala system). While the left hemisphere is about 'serial processing', making distinctions, language - all extensions of the hippocampal
Trauma Screws Up Our Brains and Minds
When human beings experience overwhelming emotions, their perceptual systems become dominated by amygdala functions. That is, when a trauma occurs,
the Hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis floods the brain and body with hyperarousing hormones like adrenaline (aka epinephrne) which activates threat
detecting modules in the brain, as well as amplifying the effects of norepinephrine, a neurochemical associated with vigilance. Cortisol, another
important molecule, is a catabolic hormone that breaks down fats, proteins and sugars so that an organism can mount an energetic response. All this
energy diverts blood flow away from the center of the body (which is where blood flow is concentrated during rest i.e. to repair cells) and towards
the limbs. This makes a whole lot of sense for a creature in a life-threatening situation: it needs energy sent to it's limbs so that it can fight or
However, our minds do not perceive situations correctly when were in an over-aroused state.
As this graph shows, when the amygdala detects threat, it activates the HPA axis, which gets are body's hyper-aroused. When our body's are
hyperaroused, our minds reflexively believe whatever ideas pop up within it. This is important: just as the body sends all its energy resources away
from life-restoring processes towards the limbs, it also depressed blood flow to the Hippocampus and dorsolateral brain structures i.e those brain
structures that allow us to contextualize features of an environment, or situation, that may require some deeper analysis.
But we can't really focus when were aroused like this. Quite the contrary! When our body's become activated by adrenaline and cortisol, our minds
tend to dissociate dissonant information - that is, views and perspectives that are incompatible with our current belief (say, towards revenge) are
violently dissociated (not recognized) when our body's enter the "hyper-arousal" zone.
This is an important truth about our human nature. We cannot perceive the object world we interact with in a correct way when our body's are
overactivated. The body's anxiety, fear, and anger, trigger enactive processes
, whereby we say and do things without any cognitive ability to
regulate our own acting and thinking. We become stereotyped. We recycle pass "lessons" experienced in a fear state, and act, compulsively, for our
Another possible response to a traumatic situation is to dissociate all feeling from the body. This experience, known in traumatology as
"depersonalization", or "derealization", is a state of hypoarousal, that, similarly to the hyperaroused state, leaves an organism unable to
perceive the external world in an accurate way. While hyperarousal might get us caught up in a destructive long-term feedback loop, hypoarousal is a
last-resort response to overwhelming experience. It generally does not help the organism to survive in the short-term as well as hyperaroused
Terrorism And The Historical Context
With this primer in place, we need to understand some important things about ISIS, the political movement known as Islamism, and the way acts of
terrorism affect us.
First things first, lets try to think about ISIS, Islamism and Islamic terrorism, with reference to our first principle: how the human being has been
conditioned by evolution to respond to traumatic emotions.
In order to do this, we cannot simply speak about whats happening today, but must look at the past to get some sort of historical context.
For me, the "problem" of Islamic terrorism does not begin with the west, or Israel, or anything "we" have done. The reality of Islamism derives
precisely from the first principles of human evolution, and in particular, with the way humans self-organize with reference to what the evolutionary
psychologist Michael Tomasello terms "shared-intentionality". Shared intentionality is an abstract term that tries to make sense of the way human
beings seem to know what other people are thinking (or intending). Freud called this function the 'super-ego', and the philosopher Ludwig
Wittgenstein, speaking more philosophically, called the "view from nowhere". Put more simply, what I'm referring to is our normal human obsession
with social-status. The "alpha" and the "beta" are terms we apply to humans who dominate or submit in social interactions. These views are always
with us, whether within the group (some direct, others follow) or between groups - humans are ALWAYS concerned with how they are perceived.