The science of evil

Taking a turn for the worst Illustration: Sturt Krygsman

  • The Australian, 

    It’s a great curiosity of mine. What turns the most loving, kind person into one who would dob their neighbours — including the kids they’d known and loved for years — into the Nazis?

Doctors, teachers, ordinary people sent their patients, clients or friends off to death camps for rewards such as access to their victim’s possessions. All the while going about their normal daily business and being nice people.

Is it fear? Is it greed? Would I be capable of doing such evil deeds under certain circumstances? And if not, what is it about me that couldn’t?

Many philosophers and historians have put their minds to this vexing issue, “the banality of evil”. But there’s never been a satisfactory answer. So, having lunch with the brilliant psychiatrist Norman Doidge, author of the international bestseller The Brain Changes Itself and the new book The Brain’s Way of Healing, I posed the question: Is there something different about the brain of someone who can support mass annihilation or murder but who otherwise is a perfectly decent person?

Sociopaths and psychopaths are predatory and often commit heinous crimes. This is possible because they have no empathy centre in the brain. But how can a person with full empathetic capabilities become a monster or support a monstrous regime?

Doidge says it’s all down to neuroscience. Heightened levels of fear, anxiety or rage can make a normal person switch off empathy. A person can have a full range of compassionate responses in daily life, but when fear levels or primal feelings are raised high enough, the amygdala — the primitive part of the brain governing emotions, and survival — is activated and kindness overridden.

The empathetic centre of the brain is still functioning. People still pat their dogs and love their kids. But the targeted race, or species, or person deemed a threat provokes the feelings and chemicals of fight or flight. Jews, gays, gypsies and the disabled were turned into dangerous “vermin” by Hitler’s PR machine; a threat to the purity of the German race.

Almost everyone except those of very strong mind and will are susceptible to brainwashing.

Jung called our alter ego the shadow side, a side governed by lust, greed, jealousy or hedonistic desires. We all have a dark side that can be triggered.

But the question for me remains unanswered. What am I personally capable of doing? I don’t think I could ever be reduced to doing harm under any circumstances. But then again, nobody does.

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