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Identifying the Extremist Brain
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WATCH: I Used to Be in a Cult and Here's What It Did to My Brain

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Extremism has become a sensationalized catchall phrase, often used by politicians and mass media to polarize and to label groups of people as "the bad guys."

But, what is extremism? And how do we get to the root of its destructiveness?

When I was 17, I learned about extremism first-hand. Young, vulnerable and searching for what I call 'easy answers to hard questions,' I left my loving, middle-class, midwestern -- very normal and average, by all accounts -- family and fell prey to the teachings of a religious cult.

I became a devout follower of Sun Myung Moon and was the victim of highly manipulative tactics. Being a "Moonie" completely dictated my decision-making processes. It tore me away from family, friends, my planned future, and everything else I had previously known and loved.

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In my TEDTalk I define what happened to me as having been infected by a "memetic virus." Once infected, I would have done anything for my "messiah." My mind was closed, fixed, intolerant and impervious to change. I was an extremist.

If we hope to prevent extremist terrorism we have to begin with understanding the mental condition of extremist leaders. We also need to understand the mental condition of those most vulnerable to extremist tactics. Finally, we need to understand manipulation, the vehicle that connects the extremist leader and it's victims.

Extremist Leaders

What causes someone to become a cult leader like Sun Myung Moon or Jim Jones, or a terrorist leader like Osama Bin Laden?

I agree with Neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor's assessment that religious fundamentalism could be treated as a form of mental illness.

My mind was closed, fixed, intolerant and impervious to change. I was an extremist. -- Diane Benscoter

Extremist leaders are addicts. Addiction is a powerful force. The addiction to power and/or money can affect the brain much like other types of addiction. The overwhelming desire to feed any form of addiction can eventually lead to a type of psychopathy. In the most dangerous circumstances charismatic leaders, under the influence of their addiction, can make a powerful and potentially deadly discovery. They can discover, and put into action, a set of manipulative tactics that prey on vulnerable segments of society.

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Extremist Victims/ Followers

It's hard to think of a terrorist as a victim, but we have to ask what's going on in the brain of someone who straps a bomb to his or her body and detonates? As I express in my talk, with great repulsion, I understand how it could happen. I was a victim of extremist mental manipulation. So are they.

In these cases the victims are often young adults who feel lost in their world and desire the comradery and easy answers to complex questions offered by extremism. When I read the background of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing, I see a bit of 17-year-old me.

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In my memoir, Shoes of a Servant -- My Unconditional Devotion to a Lie, you can see how vulnerable I was to the specific type of manipulative tactics used by Sun Myung Moon and his followers and how I became an extremist. While Moonies are certainly not terrorists, it is the mental condition we need to understand.

What can we do?

There are many examples of how educational campaigns have greatly slowed down the spread of infectious diseases and brought awareness to important social topics. I propose that we create similar campaigns to combat extremism.

The complexity of preventing extremism should not be underestimated, especially in war-torn parts of the world where the use of religious fundamentalism is woven into the culture and vulnerability is high.

Fortunately there are organizations like SAVE (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) and Quilliam a London based Anti-Extremism think tank that's working diligently toward solutions to extremism.

The complexity of preventing extremism should not be underestimated, especially in war-torn parts of the world where the use of religious fundamentalism is woven into the culture and vulnerability is high. -- Diane Benscoter

I'm also working on a new book and other projects that will help expose prevailing social tactics most commonly used by extremist leaders to manipulate. I look forward to the results of ongoing research by neuroscientists and psychologists working toward a greater understanding of cognitive processes associated with addiction and mental manipulation. When information about mental manipulation becomes common knowledge power-addicted extremists will have less success, because vulnerability will be lowered.

The War for Peace

We need a dual approach in ongoing discussions and to solve this problem. We need high-level strategic research of the brain to better understand addiction and vulnerability to manipulation. On the ground level, we need social understanding and education. Once we arm individuals with knowledge about vulnerability to manipulation they can better protect themselves and others. We can help the most vulnerable diminish their feelings of isolation, so that they can make informed, powerful decisions based on critical thinking vs. circular logic. Working together, we can ensure a less destructive world.

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