Bobby Azarian

Why the deeply psychological war with Donald Trump has only just begun: neuroscientist

Most of us are sick and tired of hearing about Donald Trump. We want him to go away, forever. But the unfortunate truth is that just isn’t happening—not any time soon, at least. Trump’s influence over the Republican party is as great as ever, and if we ignore that, it is like ignoring an infection. It will fester and spread and eat away at the flesh of America unless it is dealt with. But what is the antibiotic that stops the cultural disease that is Donald Trump?

First, we must realize that we are engaged in something like a game of chess. To defeat our opponent, we must be thinking many steps ahead, and we must try to anticipate what they are going to do. We must rely on our rational mind and our reactions must be mindful and strategic, rather than reflexive and impulsive. That may sound like obvious advice, but so far, the Left has been responding predictably, without foresight or strategy, and playing right into Trump’s hand as a result. The more CNN and MSNBC attack Trump and say he is the anti-Christ, the more he is loved by the Right. They think, “If he’s pissed them off that much, he must be doing something right!”

It’s time to acknowledge a failed strategy and try something new. If we don’t, nothing will change, and Trump will keep his influence over almost half the country. He may even get re-elected, as absurd as that sounds in light of the events that transpired on January 6th of last year. But if he does not—whether it’s because he loses or is not allowed to run—there will still be half of the nation following Trump and that influence will be felt in Congress and on the streets. So how can we start playing the game differently?

The intention of this warning is not to prepare us for war, but to avoid it. To prevent the outbreak of a physical war, we may have to engage in a psychological war. It’s the kind of war where no one dies, and our weapon is simply convincing content. But before we entertain some potential solutions and strategies, we should have a sense of how Trump is going to play the game, based on what we know about his psychology. In theory, if we can predict him, we can disarm him.

There’s Nothing More Dangerous Than a Man with Nothing to Lose

My first article about Donald Trump, published in January of 2016, described his narcissistic personality disorder and why it made him a dangerous world leader. According to Raw Story, it was their most popular article ever, receiving an estimated 30 million views over the years. I was not alone in this assessment—more than a few clinical psychologists have identified Trump as a “textbook narcissist.” Two years into his presidency, I wrote a similar piece that explored how Trump might respond to “narcissistic injury,” which occurs when a narcissist loses power and gets disgraced.

When Trump lost the presidency to Joe Biden, he became filled with rage and obsessed with revenge. The first thing he tried to do was overturn the election using an angry mob. Ever since his “fall from grace” (though technically there was no ‘grace’ to begin with), he has nothing to lose, and this makes him more dangerous than ever. His narcissistic injury has created narcissistic rage, and this rage means he will try to destroy all those he has a vendetta against. To achieve his goal, he will play dirty, gaslight, and intimidate at a level that would seem extreme even for him. Right now, he is doing everything in his power to systematically fill the Republican party with loyalists and sycophants who will do his bidding with no regard for laws or fairness. The question is, is there anything that can be done about it?

As long as Trump is the most popular figure with right-wing America, Republican politicians will be forced to fall in line. It would seem that what must be done is changing how Trump is perceived by his followers. To do that, we must understand the worldview of his supporters, and why they see Trump as their savior. If we can socially engineer a “fall from grace” with the majority of his supporters, then Republican politicians and Fox News pundits will all begin jumping ship. It briefly looked like that was going to happen when the Capitol Building was being stormed, but Trump cleverly strong-armed them all back into submission.

We are in a War of Worldviews

As a cognitive neuroscientist who has been analyzing Donald Trump and his supporters over the last six years—in dozens of articles for websites like Raw Story, The Daily Beast, and Psychology Today, and in interviews with progressive voices like The Young Turks and David Pakman—I have come to realize that the war with Trump is a war of worldviews. But it is not as simple as the Right versus the Left, and if we make the mistake of thinking it is, then we are missing a massive factor in his continued popularity and will remain clueless about how to combat it.

Yes, it’s true that Trump has become the messiah for conservative America, and that Christian fundamentalists make up a big chunk of his support. These people feel like the conservative worldview is dying and that their Christian values and customs will fade into oblivion if something drastic isn’t done to reverse the trend towards secularism. Fox News fuels these fears daily, and Trump saw an opportunity to exploit the existential terror. But make no mistake—Trump is not a religious man and at his core he is no conservative. It is commonly known but ignored that he used to be a Democrat and a good buddy of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, not to mention Jeffrey Epstein, whose sleazy values were anything but conservative.

Steve Bannon’s social engineering helped Trump win over conservative America, and similar information warfare could reverse that. A deep and thorough character study of Donald’s anti-conservative past, that forces his followers to see him as an opportunist and not one of them, could go a long way if it were presented by a source that the Right perceives to be a neutral party. His followers will not watch CNN or MSNBC, so the challenge would be to figure out how to deliver the story to them from a source they trust, or at least don’t despise. Truth be told, not all his conservative supporters are racist or bad people. Many just believe everything that Right-wing media feeds them and are convinced that the Left is the real danger to America. If these conservatives can be persuaded that the reality show star is not a true tribe member, it could hurt Trump’s dominance over the Republican party, and reveal to everyone that he’s not invincible. We should not expect this content to make them switch political sides, but if it can weaken Trump’s grip on America, the effort could be worth it.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about what is happening in America is that people want change. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were the most popular presidential candidates because they were the ones promising to take on corruption in Washington and money in politics—even if one of them wanted to do none of those things in reality. People are angry at an economic situation that has led to the highest level of income inequality the nation’s ever seen. Billionaires and corporations on both sides have control over the stories media outlets run and influence the laws to work in their favor. What if we can offer something new to the rational people on the Left and the Right who want systemic change? What if it could be radically progressive—in the sense that the ideas are profoundly different—but in ways that appeal to people across the political spectrum? Is that even possible?

A New Political Party is the Way Forward

Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman have founded a new party known as the Forward Party, and it has already announced candidates who will be running for office in the midterm elections.

The party is focused on depolarizing America and healing the division, but without proposing policies that are directly in the center, since they also do not move America “forward.” Because it is open to candidates who lean right and left, it is bipartisan, but it also the definition of progressive, because its platform consists of many radical new ideas—like Yang’s plan for universal basic income (UBI). It may sound like an oxymoron, but the Forward Party might just be America’s first “bipartisan progressive party.”

Could a third party be the thing that unites all rational Americans in a war against corruption, political extremism, and Trumpism? It is hard to say, since neither side seems to be too interested in compromise, and divisive issues like abortion and gun control make any kind of reconciliation difficult to imagine. And what new big ideas is the Forward Party offering that make it something radically different from the Democratic party?

I, for one, believe it is a step in the right direction, though I understand if some think the Forward Party is too young to stand a real chance in the next presidential election. However, if there was ever a time that a third party actually stood a chance, it is right now. If the Forward Party’s presidential candidate seems like the best choice for America, a reasonable strategy would be to support that candidate right up until the moment it seems like defeating Trump is no longer possible. At that point, the Forward Party candidate would urge their supporters to vote for the candidate who can ensure Trump never gets back into the oval office. But if the Forward Party’s pick is polling well and has a chance to win, then it would seem like the perfect opportunity to break America’s infamous two-party system. According to the Washington Post, a growing number of experts believe that the way to fix democracy is to move beyond the two-party system.

As a scientist, I believe that a scientific approach to improving society is what America needs. To be clear, that doesn’t mean looking to existing science for answers—most of our problems will not have obvious answers that can be found in any text book. I simply mean that we should always be experimenting with new ways of doing things and collecting data to see what is or is not working. That way we can collectively adapt and evolve and become an optimally-functional system. Evolutionary theory has shown us that organisms that can’t adapt to a changing world die out. Complex systems science says that social systems are similar to organisms in terms of their dynamics and structure. That means societies must also be able to adapt to a changing world. In other words, they have to be self-correcting. In his best-selling book The Beginning of Infinity, the theoretical physicist David Deutsch—father of quantum computing—explained how societies can be structured to be optimally self-correcting. This requires implementing mechanisms for error detection and correction. If the Forward Party wants to truly be forward-thinking, it must look at the strategies for optimizing systems discovered by nature and cataloged by science. This approach is known as “systems thinking,” and it is transforming how both scientists and citizens solve complex problems of all kinds.

In recent years, a growing number of scientists have recognized the societal significance of a statistical reasoning method known as Bayesian reasoning, which is a procedure for updating your theory, model, or belief-system in the face of new evidence. It involves a relatively complex mathematical formula but you don’t need to know any math to use informal Bayesian reasoning in everyday life—as philosopher Julia Galef explains in this short and accessible video. All you have to do is 1) consider all possible explanations for something, rather than relying purely on “gut instinct,” 2) rank and rate each theory according to how likely it is to be true based on all the known facts, 3) test each theory by using it to make future predictions, and 4) update how you ranked and rated the likelihood of each being true to reflect what you learned from the testing phase. Some of our most respected scientists, like cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, have identified Bayesian reasoning as a powerful tool in the war against irrationality, as it can combat misinformation and bogus conspiracy theories. At the same time, it can reveal real conspiracies should they exist, by demonstrating that a particular theory about a conspiracy explains the facts better than the alternatives, such as the mainstream narrative. What Bayesian reasoning provides in a nutshell is a universal approach to determining truth. Beliefs should not be believed blindly; they should be tested continually. This is another method for self-correction.

With these principles in mind, I created the Road to Omega Substack to sketch out how the sciences of complexity—like systems science, evolutionary theory, and statistical science—can reveal new ways to design optimally functional and resilient social, political, and economic systems. Not only that, collectively these sciences illuminate what could be called a “new cosmic narrative”—a picture of the universe as a creative system that inevitably generates complexity in the form of life, consciousness, and civilization. That means that we are not accidents of nature, we are actually the primary drivers of this complexity growth process. An awareness of this fact can instill within us a purpose, that purpose being to see that our civilization progresses into a more complex, integrated, and intelligent state of existence; one that acquires the ability to get off of the planet before our sun dies and takes all sentient life with it. I have described this new scientific paradigm, which creates a foundation for a unifying worldview, in my new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity.

If a progressive ideology is one that aims to bring about human progress, then it must view society as a whole as an adaptive system, and it must look to the new sciences of complexity to understand the evolutionary mechanisms that drive organisms toward higher organization and computational capacity. The Forward Party is a chance to build a political party that is self-correcting and constantly evolving, rather than dogmatic and rigid. It is young and therefore can be shaped and sculpted into a truly progressive party, one that is not under the influence of billionaires and corporations that don’t have the best interests of the people in mind. It is also a chance to weaken the grip that Donald Trump has on the nation, by offering a new political option that is uncorrupted by money and untainted by extremist elements. The country desperately needs radical change, but change that is rooted in logic and rationality. Those are the requirements for change that moves us forward and not backward; that is, for change to be progress.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist, an author, and a Psychology Today blogger. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @BobbyAzarian.

Scientists establish link between religious fundamentalism and brain damage

A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia has shown that religious fundamentalism is, in part, the result of a functional impairment in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex. The findings suggest that damage to particular areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive flexibility and openness—a psychology term that describes a personality trait which involves dimensions like curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness.

Religious beliefs can be thought of as socially transmitted mental representations that consist of supernatural events and entities assumed to be real. Religious beliefs differ from empirical beliefs, which are based on how the world appears to be and are updated as new evidence accumulates or when new theories with better predictive power emerge. On the other hand, religious beliefs are not usually updated in response to new evidence or scientific explanations, and are therefore strongly associated with conservatism. They are fixed and rigid, which helps promote predictability and coherence to the rules of society among individuals within the group.

Religious fundamentalism refers to an ideology that emphasizes traditional religious texts and rituals and discourages progressive thinking about religion and social issues. Fundamentalist groups generally oppose anything that questions or challenges their beliefs or way of life. For this reason, they are often aggressive towards anyone who does not share their specific set of supernatural beliefs, and towards science, as these things are seen as existential threats to their entire worldview.

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Since religious beliefs play a massive role in driving and influencing human behavior throughout the world, it is important to understand the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism from a psychological and neurological perspective.

To investigate the cognitive and neural systems involved in religious fundamentalism, a team of researchers—led by Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University—conducted a study that utilized data from Vietnam War veterans that had been gathered previously. The vets were specifically chosen because a large number of them had damage to brain areas suspected of playing a critical role in functions related to religious fundamentalism. CT scans were analyzed comparing 119 vets with brain trauma to 30 healthy vets with no damage, and a survey that assessed religious fundamentalism was administered. While the majority of participants were Christians of some kind, 32.5% did not specify a particular religion.

Based on previous research, the experimenters predicted that the prefrontal cortex would play a role in religious fundamentalism, since this region is known to be associated with something called ‘cognitive flexibility’. This term refers to the brain’s ability to easily switch from thinking about one concept to another, and to think about multiple things simultaneously. Cognitive flexibility allows organisms to update beliefs in light of new evidence, and this trait likely emerged because of the obvious survival advantage such a skill provides. It is a crucial mental characteristic for adapting to new environments because it allows individuals to make more accurate predictions about the world under new and changing conditions.

Brain imaging research has shown that a major neural region associated with cognitive flexibility is the prefrontal cortex—specifically two areas known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Additionally, the vmPFC was of interest to the researchers because past studies have revealed its connection to fundamentalist-type beliefs. For example, one study showed individuals with vmPFC lesions rated radical political statements as more moderate than people with normal brains, while another showed a direct connection between vmPFC damage and religious fundamentalism. For these reasons, in the present study, researchers looked at patients with lesions in both the vmPFC and the dlPFC, and searched for correlations between damage in these areas and responses to religious fundamentalism questionnaires.

According to Dr. Grafman and his team, since religious fundamentalism involves a strict adherence to a rigid set of beliefs, cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness present a challenge for fundamentalists. As such, they predicted that participants with lesions to either the vmPFC or the dlPFC would score low on measures of cognitive flexibility and trait openness and high on measures of religious fundamentalism.

The results showed that, as expected, damage to the vmPFC and dlPFC was associated with religious fundamentalism. Further tests revealed that this increase in religious fundamentalism was caused by a reduction in cognitive flexibility and openness resulting from the prefrontal cortex impairment. Cognitive flexibility was assessed using a standard psychological card sorting test that involved categorizing cards with words and images according to rules. Openness was measured using a widely-used personality survey known as the NEO Personality Inventory. The data suggests that damage to the vmPFC indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by suppressing both cognitive flexibility and openness.

These findings are important because they suggest that impaired functioning in the prefrontal cortex—whether from brain trauma, a psychological disorder, a drug or alcohol addiction, or simply a particular genetic profile—can make an individual susceptible to religious fundamentalism. And perhaps in other cases, extreme religious indoctrination harms the development or proper functioning of the prefrontal regions in a way that hinders cognitive flexibility and openness.

The authors emphasize that cognitive flexibility and openness aren’t the only things that make brains vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. In fact, their analyses showed that these factors only accounted for a fifth of the variation in fundamentalism scores. Uncovering those additional causes, which could be anything from genetic predispositions to social influences, is a future research project that the researchers believe will occupy investigators for many decades to come, given how complex and widespread religious fundamentalism is and will likely continue to be for some time.

By investigating the cognitive and neural underpinnings of religious fundamentalism, we can better understand how the phenomenon is represented in the connectivity of the brain, which could allow us to someday inoculate against rigid or radical belief systems through various kinds of mental and cognitive exercises.

'The laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness': are intelligent ETs out there?

We are living it totally crazy times, and if you don’t think so, you haven’t been paying attention. For the first time in modern history, it is no longer fringe to believe in UFOs. Unidentified Flying Objects that move in ways that seem to be leagues beyond today’s technology have been captured on video by military agencies and released by the U.S. government. Whether these UFOs are spacecraft manned with extraterrestrials or just shockingly advanced military technology is an open question. There’s also the possibility that the videos are not what they appear—that they are capturing something in some sort of way that creates a visual illusion. Whatever explanation you favor, it is safe to say that you are in no position to claim any certainty in the matter. And if you are betting on aliens, you are not a fool. The physics displayed by the supposed craft in the videos released by the U.S. government defy explanation.

In this article, I don’t intend to convince anyone that the videos show aliens. I’m going to make an argument that I can back up with well-established science, which suggests that intelligent life is not all that rare in the universe, and from that fact, let the reader make up their mind about whether or not they think ETs are among us. Whatever you decide, you will come away with a new understanding of the universe and our place in it. The saga of cosmic evolution is a story of intelligent beings inevitably becoming gods, or at least sentient agents with god-like powers. This evolutionary trajectory has nothing to do with anything supernatural—it is a product of natural processes that create a tendency toward higher complexity.

Richard Dawkins, a god among evolutionary theorists, atheists, and skeptics—most famous for his 1976 classic The Selfish Gene, which revolutionized evolutionary biology—was recently asked “Do you think there’s intelligent life out there in the universe?” by MIT podcast host Lex Friedman. His answer might surprise you.

“Well, if we accept that there’s intelligent life here, and we accept that the number of planets in the universe is gigantic—10^22 stars have been estimated—it seems to me highly likely that there is not only life in the universe elsewhere, but also intelligent life. If you deny that then you’re committed to the view that the things that happened on this planet are staggeringly improbable; I mean ludicrously, off the charts, improbable. And I don’t think it’s that improbable.”

In other words, there are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and about 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe, by today’s rough estimates. Either we are not alone, or we are unfathomably lucky to be here. But what if life were not a happy accident, and instead a regularity of nature that inevitably follows from the laws of physics on all those planets with the right chemical ingredients? Not an anomaly, but a natural manifestation of a universe that organizes itself to create complexity and consciousness?

Let’s get back to Richard Dawkins’ argument that intelligent life is almost certainly out there:

“…there are really two steps: the origin of life, which is probably fairly improbable, and then the subsequent evolution to intelligent life, which is also probably fairly improbable. So the juxtaposition of those two, you could say is pretty improbable, but not 10^22-improbable.”

According to Dawkins, there are so many planets out there that the improbable becomes probable. But in this article we are going to explain why life’s emergence and subsequent evolution toward intelligence was inevitable rather than improbable, not just here on Earth, but on all planets with the right planetary conditions. Basically, if the planet is sufficiently Earth-like it will produce complex adaptive systems (i.e., organisms), which will form a biosphere that produces increasingly complex and intelligent agents. Why?

Because once you have a reproducing system that can evolve through Darwinian evolution, it’s just a matter of time before the biosphere generates an intelligent species with a collective intelligence capable of producing science and technology. In response to Lex Friedman’s question, “Do you think evolution would also be a force on the alien planet as well?” Dawkins remarked:

“I’ve stuck my neck out and said that ever if we ever do discover life elsewhere, it will be Darwinian life, in the sense that it will work by some kind of natural selection; the non-random survival of randomly-generated codes.”

In an article titled Darwin’s Aliens, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, the authors argue that extraterrestrials would likely evolve through natural selection to be highly complex and intelligent, as Dawkins suggests. Now we are going to learn why new theoretical work is providing support for that idea.

To explain why life and intelligence emerge inevitably given Earth-like conditions, we must understand the role that energy flows play in organizing non-living matter into organic computing machinery with sentience. In other words, evolution toward conscious creatures of increasing intelligence was destined to emerge in a universe that is always increasing in complexity.

Inevitable Life

Until recently, most scientists believed that the origin of life was such an unlikely event, requiring the “chance assembly” of so many molecules, that it would be unlikely to have occurred anywhere else in the universe. The Nobel Prize-winning French biologist Jacques Monod poetically summed up this view in his influential book Chance and Necessity, published in 1970, when he said, “The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty.” It was his passionate and uncompromising belief that “The universe was not pregnant with life.”

However, another 20th century Nobel Laureate, the biologist Christian de Duve, challenged this view, arguing that the universe was indeed pregnant with life, going as far as to say that biology seems to have been “written into the fabric of the universe.”

De Duve was in good company. Carl Sagan, the most famous astronomer of the 20th century, also thought that life was a probable phenomenon in those places where conditions are ripe for life, writing:

“The origin of life must be a highly probably affair. As soon as conditions permit, up it pops!”

Indeed, the planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and life is now estimated to be about 4 billion years old. It arose only 100 million years or so after the Earth’s surface cooled enough to support life. That’s a blink of an eye in cosmic time.

So what does it mean exactly to say that life was inevitable rather than improbable? It means that when you have the right thermodynamic conditions—thermodynamics is the science of energy flow—energy moving through a system will organize inanimate matter with the ingredients for organic chemistry into animate matter, or biology.

“The origin of life must be a highly probably affair. As soon as conditions permit, up it pops!”

Indeed, the planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and life is now estimated to be about 4 billion years old. It arose only 100 million years or so after the Earth’s surface cooled enough to support life. That’s a blink of an eye in cosmic time.

So what does it mean exactly to say that life was inevitable rather than improbable? It means that when you have the right thermodynamic conditions—thermodynamics is the science of energy flow—energy moving through a system will organize inanimate matter with the ingredients for organic chemistry into animate matter, or biology.

How exactly does energy flowing through molecules organize those atoms into a complex adaptive system that can reproduce itself? Whenever there is a process that turns a simple system into something complex, we can suspect that some form of Darwinian evolution is at play. Dissipative adaptation is the newly-discovered process by which molecules assemble themselves when they are driven to interact by a flow of energy. Although this mechanism was described conceptually by Harold Morowitz many decades earlier, Jeremy England of MIT gave it a mathematical description and devised simulation studies that would serve as a proof of concept. To put it another way, the molecules of organic chemistry self-organize when sufficient energy is flowing through the system. Given enough time, a self-maintaining chemical system emerges that can copy itself. While there are many details that remain a mystery, the basic mechanisms underlying the origin of life have been illuminated by origin-of-life researchers.

According to the theories of England, Morowitz, and Smith, the emergence of life in the energetic conditions of the early Earth should be about as surprising as water flowing downhill. If you have the right ingredients, life emerging is not improbable but inevitable. So, when we ask how common is basic life in the universe, we must ask how many Earth-like planets are out there. Depending on what exact factors are critical—such as size, distance from a star, and molecular makeup—there are billions to trillions of them.

So alien life is almost certainly out there, and while it is obviously not present on the majority of planets—at least not anywhere near us—it is presumably not rare either. While it may be too far for us to see with current technology, the cosmos could be teeming with life. Given its inevitability, you could say we live in a “pro-life universe.”

“If life in its abundance were bound to arise, not as an incalculably improbable accident, but as an expected fulfillment of the natural order,” writes origins-of-life pioneer Stuart Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute, “then we truly are at home in the universe.”

While this changes how we think about life—it is not accidental but a natural manifestation of the “cosmic code”—it would be quite disappointing if only single-celled life were out there. Bacteria are not going to produce anything interesting, like culture and technology. So the real question of interest is whether intelligent life is out there.

Well, extraterrestrial enthusiasts are in luck, because there are good reasons to believe that with biospheres like the one we inhabit, the eventual emergence of general intelligence may be just as inevitable as basic biology.

Inevitable Intelligence

If intelligence is not an unlikely phenomenon, but a natural manifestation of a universal tendency for complexity to arise and grow without bound where conditions permit, then we can expect intelligence elsewhere in the cosmos.

Those who have taken an evolution course in high school or college know that all species are not evolving toward higher complexity or intelligence. Sharks and crocodiles are well-known examples of species that haven’t changed in any significant way over many millions of years of evolution by natural selection. In fact, fish that have migrated to caves have been known to lose their eyes over evolutionary time, becoming simpler. This fact clearly illustrates that not all organisms, or even the majority, are growing more complex through evolution. If a genetic mutation simplifies the design of a creature, and that simplified design increases their ability to survive—their ‘fitness’—then that simpler form will be ‘selected’ by nature. In other words, they will get to live on and reproduce.

It would appear that evolution does not make species increasingly complex or intelligent per se, but simply well-adapted to whatever environment they habit. Some ecological ‘niches’ present a great variety of challenges that must be adapted to, while others present hardly any. As a result, some organisms become more complex while some barely evolve at all.

Some scientists, like the famous 20th century evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, have interpreted this to mean that evolution does not create any inherent drive toward higher complexity and intelligence, but this is a mistake. While evolution certainly does not drive every species to become increasingly complex, it does continually create new species, and over evolutionary time, will produce increasingly complex species.As the great sociobiologist E.O. Wilson explained in his 1992 book The Diversity of Life, there is a self-reinforcing tendency for ecosystems to create new niches and new species.

Not only that, the need to adapt to an increasingly complex environment will systematically increase the complexity of the most complex species through what is known as an “evolutionary arms race,” which is a name for a competitive struggle that ratchets up intelligence. For example, humans in complex urban societies, like the tech hub in Silicon Valley, are competing with each other for jobs that require high intelligence and flexible or adaptive thinking. This selection pressure has been around to some degree since homo sapiens emerged, and when civilization emerged, the need for complex problem-solvers exploded.

A similar idea is the “Red Queen Hypothesis,” which says that for the most intelligent species in a biosphere, simply persisting requires a continual increase in intelligence. Members of such a species must constantly adapt, evolve, and reproduce just to maintain their existence, due to a competitive, ever-evolving environment. The name, proposed by the evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen in 1973, comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. After Alice complains of running for a very long time and going nowhere, the Queen responds, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” In other words, some species must evolve to become increasingly complex just to stay in the game of existence. With evolutionary arms races happening constantly, it should not be surprising that increasingly intelligent species emerge over time as a result of blind and mechanical evolutionary processes.

Inevitable Expansion

The other major mechanism of complexity and intelligence increase is known as an “evolutionary transition,” which has also been called a “metasystem transition.” These terms typically refer to events where organisms come together, through cooperative evolution, to form a larger organism—a superorganism that has a collective intelligence that is greater than the intelligence of any of its members.

One such transition occurred when single-celled organisms formed a multicellular organism. Another occurred when multicellular organisms came together to form societies. Ant colonies are a popular example, but human civilization is another, although we don’t typically think of the global population of humans as forming a superorganism. But what we are collectively is a global brain, in which humans and their devices and AIs form something like a neural network that spans the planet. The body of the superorganism that supports the global brain is the entire biosphere, and the processes of life make up its physiology.

What’s the next stage in the evolution of the global superorganism? Well, depending on how far the organism metaphor applies, the biosphere’s next step would be self-replication. What would this look like at the level of a biosphere? If we colonize Mars, that would be the biosphere reproducing! When intelligent life terraforms a new planet, it will create a copy of its biosphere, and because the new planet will have different properties than the planet of origin, there will be replication with variation. These planets may compete economically and for new territory in space, or they may cooperate to form a new superorganism—perhaps one of galactic proportions, given enough time.

“I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness,” says one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, Christof Koch, who was trained as a physicist.

“The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable. Teilhard de Chardin is correct in his view that islands within the universe—if not the whole cosmos—are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit priest and paleontologist who wrote a truly prophetic book about the progressive nature of biological and technological evolution called The Phenomenon of Man, published after his death in 1955 because the Catholic Church considered it heresy. This book, written two decades earlier, predicted the emergence of what Teilhard de Chardin called a “noosphere”—a word he used to describe a state in which humans form a global mind as a result of communication technology (“noos” is Greek for mind). Due to the predictive power of his theory of progressive evolution, called the Omega Point theory, Teilhard was able to foresee the creation of the Internet even before the digital computer was invented. An omega point is a state of optimal complexity that an evolving biosphere tends to move in the direction of, due to what physicists call an “attractor.”

The great inventor Nikola Tesla also predicted strangely specific details about the future based on his idea that humans on Earth are forming a global brain:

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is…. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

Despite the appearance of having some kind of psychic ability to see into the future, these men simply understood the continual and accelerating increase in complexity and intelligence that results from continual biological, culture, and technological evolution.

While the success of our specific civilization is in no way guaranteed, it appears that there’s a natural tendency for biospheres being pushed by flows of solar energy toward greater organization to grow increasingly complex and intelligent. Adaptive complexity—which is what life really is—doesn’t just grow more computationally powerfully over time, it also becomes harder to kill or restrain. This is the magic of a self-correcting biosphere—by learning from its mistakes, a complex adaptive system actually becomes more powerful from everything that doesn’t eliminate it completely. So, the inevitable growth of complexity and the spread of life in the cosmos is not driven by some supernatural or conscious cosmic force; it is a learning process that creates knowledge which allows sentient systems to resist the natural tendency toward decay or disorder described by the second law of thermodynamics.

David Deutsch, father of the field of quantum computing and the leading advocate for the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, is very clear about the open-ended nature of evolution: “This process need never come to an end. There are no inherent limits to the growth of knowledge and progress.”

As long as there is usable energy to extract somewhere out there in the universe, intelligence can continue to spread through the cosmos, converting the inanimate matter of the universe into the living network. Through the process of complexity increase, the inanimate universe begins to wake up and experience the fruits of its own creation. Carl Sagan famously said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” and that poetic statement now rests on a firm scientific foundation.

Coming back to our original question: what have we learned about the likelihood of aliens in the universe? They almost certainly exist, and some of these aliens are almost certainly intelligent. Of course, the Fermi paradox remains: if intelligent life is out there, why haven’t we seen any traces of it. Well, space is a big place, and it may take a long time to get here. Our tools for detecting them may also be too primitive. So, we may just be early to the game—ETs may be on their way here right now, coming at us from a distant galaxy at near the speed of life. Of course, that is, if they aren’t already among us, keeping themselves undetected as they study our weird and seemingly self-destructive society in an attempt to better understand the nature of life.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and a science journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian. His new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity is available for pre-order now.

A neuroscientist explains how the far-right's most fanatical followers could lead America to societal collapse

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Do not be alarmed, but consider this article a prediction and a warning. Actually, it's okay to be a little alarmed, because recent events—like the storming of the Capitol—are certainly cause for concern. Let's call it what it is; Donald Trump has created a cult and radicalized its members. QAnon also shares a large part of the responsibility, whoever they are. We may not be able to see it because Trump has been banned from Twitter and Q conversation cleaned from social media, but behind the scenes, this cult is being transformed into an army of soldiers.

How do we know that it is as serious as I say; that this is not just more fear mongering? Well, for one, people have died. Heather Heyer, a counterprotester protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, was run over by a white supremacist, and 19 others were injured. Last year a man drew a hunting bow on protestors in Salt Lake City before being taken out by the crowd, a chilling moment that was captured on video. On the day of the Capitol riot, a pipe bomb was found a few blocks from the Capitol building. In addition to these troubling events, many others who will go unnamed have been the victims of hate crimes that can be traced to the alt-Right, pro-Trump movement.

But the causalities have not only been on one side. Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt was fatally wounded by a cop as the mob tried to breach a door, another frightening moment caught on video. The point I'm making has nothing to do with whether or not the shooting was justified—though saying that level of force was necessary strikes me as uncomfortably close to Right-wing apologists who defend cops that shoot unarmed black men. The point is that the violence is escalating, and there's every reason to believe that escalation will continue. To use Newton's third law as a metaphor—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, what does this mean for the future of America?

Since aggression provokes fear, and fear promotes aggression, a dangerous feedback loop has been established, dividing the nation to such a degree that something like civil war seems imminent. It may be a "cold civil war," but there will still be violence, destruction, and death. There will also be more gridlock in Washington, which makes any kind of progress impossible. It is hard to calculate the suffering that could have been avoided with a functional Congress, but we can be sure it is substantial. And if the division gets too severe, which is where we are headed, there will be a point of no return. Social chaos and economic collapse will follow, the United States will lose its status as a superpower, and life as we know it, will cease. If the pandemic showed us anything, it is that despite how advanced we are technologically, we are not protected from disaster, and our way of life can change overnight.

The good news is that this gloomy future is only inevitable should we choose not to intervene. But we do have to make a conscious effort to avoid catastrophe if we want any chance of being successful. I'm not talking about compromising, or forgiving, or forgetting—because we should do none of those things. I'm proposing something altogether new, something radical to stop Right-wing radicalism. But to understand the solution, and why it is necessary, we first have to get a clearer understanding of the problem, and of the predictive power of science.

The Predictive Power of Terror Management Theory

To those skeptics who consider a civil war of sorts an unlikely scenario, just ask yourself how likely any of the events mentioned above would have seemed in the pre-Trump era. Imagine taking a time machine back to 2014, and telling people that the reality show star Donald Trump would be our next president. That alone would sound ridiculous. Now imagine telling people that thousands of his supporters would storm the Capitol—many armed—in hopes of overturning the 2020 election. It would sound like some zany plot for an over-the-top comedy. Now imagine that after such event, and after trying to get his vice president killed, Trump would still own the Republican party and all of conservative media. On the surface, this outcome seems so improbable that it makes one doubt our ability to predict the future at all.

Despite how unlikely this general scenario might have seemed, I'm going to argue that it was in fact predictable with a high degree of statistical certainty, if one had the proper theoretical framework through which to understand those events as they were unfolding. That framework is called Terror Management Theory(TMT), and this paradigm from social psychology will be our sense-making lens in a time where nothing seems to make much sense.

Armed with the logic of Terror Management Theory, and an understanding of the relevant neuroscience, I was able to predict the rise of Trump, the white Nationalist movement that put him in office, the Q problem that led to the Capitol attack, and the refusal to accept the results of the election by Trump and his supporters—many months in advance. These predictions will be explained later in the article. No, I am not a psychic, but I did have a crystal ball called "science."

Karl Popper, the father of the philosophy of science, said the riskier the prediction made by a scientific theory, the more convincing it is when that prediction comes true. And you can be sure that when I was making such predictions, in articles for websites like Raw Story, Daily Beast, and Psychology Today, they seemed to describe highly unlikely outcomes. That is, if one were getting their analyses from mainstream news media and professional statisticians unfamiliar with the effects of "mortality salience"—in other words, making people think about death, or making them feel that there is a looming existential threat. I bring up these predictions not to say "I told you so" or for bragging rights; rather, it is a plea for the reader to take the predictions of the theory seriously.

To understand how Terror Management Theory can be used to predict the collective behavior of a society when existential threat looms—whether that threat is ISIS, Right-wing terror, or the pandemic—a brief introduction is in order. If you are already familiar with the theory and its relevance to Trump supporter psychology from past articles published at Raw Story, know that this piece presents new insights and ties up many seemingly unrelated features of cognition in a way that illuminates precisely why everything happened the way it did. The Trump loyalist is a mystery we are about to unravel, and in doing so, we come to see that the average MAGA maniac had little choice over their behavior.

Cultural Worldviews are Death-Anxiety Buffers

Terror Management Theory, which was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book from the 1970s called The Denial of Death, has been supported by hundreds of psychology and neuroscience studies. According to the theory, most of human behavior is driven by our subconscious fear of death. Unlike most if not all other animals, we have an awareness that one day we will inevitably die, for reasons that are beyond our control. This realization leads to an existential fear that is always bubbling beneath the surface. Without any way to cope with that cold hard fact of life—or fact of death, I should say—it can be difficult to get up in the morning, and to go on living, knowing it is all in futility.

How do we deal with our fear of death and unrelenting existential angst? Through cultural worldviews.

According to TMT, as a way of dealing with persistent death anxiety, humans created cultural worldviews—like religions, national identities, and political ideologies—to ease our fears and distract us from the fact that we will soon be gone, and probably forgotten. These worldviews make us feel safe and permanent by providing paths to immortality.

Through the concept of an afterlife, religions make literal immortality possible, while political ideologies and national identities give us symbolic immortality. In other words, they make us feel like we're part of a group and a movement that will outlive the individual. Worldviews also give life a meaning and a purpose. Whether we identify as Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, Democrat or Republican or Libertarian, we all belong to a tribe. Some tribes are just more ideologically extreme than others, and less accepting of outsiders. This applies even to atheists and anarchists, who are often just as ideological as the ideologies they are trying to escape.

So, worldviews are a double-edged sword: on one hand they give us direction and comfort, on the other they divide us into in-groups and out-groups, turning fellow humans into spiritual or political enemies. The unfortunate result is tribalism. Racism can be thought of as a specific type of tribalism, as tribalism proper would include other types of prejudice, like bias against people of other nationalities, religions, and political parties.

Tribalism, or loyalty to one's social group and aggression toward outsiders, is bad enough when times are good, but when there is an atmosphere of existential fear lingering over society for whatever reason—terror attacks, political incompetence, or a pandemic—tribal behavior gets turned up to eleven. In response to mortality salience, we double-down on our beliefs and try to force them on dissimilar others, and if they resist, we try to punish them. Whether the purpose of this punishment is to enforce fairness or to get revenge is largely in the eye of the beholder.

Understanding racism as emergent from tribalism can make sense of many confusing things. For example, during the Capitol riot, footage from Fox News showed more than a few black protestors in the audience. CNN cameras showed practically none, and we will probably never know whether Fox was selectively focusing on the minorities in the crowd, or if CNN was selecting them out of shot, though we can reasonably assume the truth is probably somewhere in between. While the minorities appeared to be safe in the crowd of QAnons and Trump soldiers, Nancy Pelosi would have undoubtedly gotten mauled by the mob. This of course does not mean that many of the Alt-Right rioters were not racist—it simply means they interpreted the minorities in the crowd to be tribe defectors, and as long as they show allegiance to the Nationalist movement or conspiracy theory mindset that signals they belong to the right tribe, the white tribe, they are accepted.

While the Alt-Right is mostly composed of Christians and Republicans, their Christian-American worldview has evolved into the more-extreme philosophical framework outlined by the tribe leaders—Donald Trump, Q, and conservative talk show hosts looking to boost ratings. At the same time, these influencers are monitoring social media and gauging sentiment on the ground, so the views of the tribe members and leaders evolve together, and this coevolution is guided largely by the atmosphere of existential fear, which is enhanced by the fear mongering coming from the top. And then, Trump's reassuring words, and Q's perceived righteousness, provide scared and confused human beings with a philosophy that gives them comfort and purpose. It is difficult if not impossible to reach these people with reason alone, as reason is not going to make them feel safe or comforted or inspired. And if the reasoning is perceived as being based on principles from an opposing tribe's worldview, they will flat out reject that logic on principle alone. That is not to say these people are completely unreachable—it's just going to take a lot more than reasoning with them.

Predictions Come True

What were the sources of existential threat that created the conditions that would put an opportunist like Trump in the most powerful position in the world? In 2016, I wrote an article for the website Aeon titled How the Fear of Death Makes People More Right-Wing, which argued that the Brexit and Trump movements were catalyzed by existential fear created by the string of ISIS attacks that had recently rocked the world. Prior to that essay, in January—almost a year before the election—I wrote an article for Raw Story called Donald Trump Has a Mental Disorder That Makes Him a Dangerous World Leader, which over the course of his presidency would receive upwards of 30 million views, making it the website's most popular article ever published. In July of 2016, when all the pundits and statisticians were predicting a blowout by Hillary Clinton, I published another article titled A Neuroscientist Explains Why Trump is Winning, and one month later another piece titled The More People Think About Death, the More They Think About Voting for Trump, which directly linked Terror Management Theory to Trump's rabid support. A 2016 Daily Beast article along the same lines, called Why Do Some People Respond to Trump? It's Biology 101, issued a warning for voters in its concluding paragraph:

"The rise of Trump has defied almost all logic. But he isn't appealing to logic. He is appealing to our most basic survival instincts. Those include fear and the natural tendency to thrive and conquer. This presidential election will be an important test for our nation. We will see if we are evolved enough for our logic to overcome our instincts."

Apparently we were not. Over the next few years, I would write more than a dozen articles on Trump-related psychology for Raw Story and Psychology Today that would receive millions of views, and land me offers of representation by fancy literary agencies, and media requests for appearances on popular web shows like the Young Turks' Damage Report and the David Pakman Show. In these interviews I described how Trump would respond as he began to lose power, based on insights from Terror Management Theory and the neuroscience of narcissism. Again, I deserve no special credit for these predictions; had I not been introduced to Terror Management Theory by a colleague, I would have been just as clueless as the pundits and statisticians. However, Ernest Becker, the cultural anthropologist who wrote The Denial of Death, and Sheldon Solomon, the psychologist who turned Becker's idea into an actual testable theory, are prophets in my book. Prophets of death, I guess you'd call them.

A more recent article, posted in September of 2020 at Psychology Today, titled How Trump and Media Allies Target the Mentally Vulnerable, had another clear warning. The teaser text read, "We can expect that conspiracy theories will be weaponized this election (again)." In it I explain how Trump and Q targeted people with schizophrenia and related disorders, by exploiting their heightened sensitivity to patterns (which are often not actually there). In another article published around the same time, I warned that the division was getting so bad that we could expect the election results to be rejected by half of the country. Despite these dire predictions being widely broadcast, the future that the science was foreshadowing seemed to be unavoidable. Why? Because unless we can learn to mentally override our fears and biases, they will completely control us, and they will make us tribal. But we are not totally hopeless—if we understand the neuroscience underlying these phenomena, we can fight back.

The Prefrontal Cortex is the Source of "Free Will"

The kind of person who is likely to be a Trump extremist is also likely to have impaired or suboptimal brain function in an important region known as the prefrontal cortex. A healthily-functioning prefrontal cortex is what allows one to override their primitive instincts, to think rationally, and to respond to stressful events in a controlled manner, rather than being controlled by fear and reflexive behavior. It does this by arming the conscious agent with a higher form of self-regulation and control, known as cognitive control, executive control, or effortful control.

To be clear, impaired cognitive control is not just a problem we see with Right-wing radicals. It is connected to ideological extremism more generally, so poor prefrontal activation is a concern for Left and Right-wingers alike. In fact, this cognitive profile is also associated with stimulant and alcohol addiction, as well as mental illness, like schizophrenia. And in super stressful times, like during a pandemic, we all become mentally ill in some way (anxiety, depression, etc.), and therefore less in control of our biases and behavior, which limits our ability to act freely. Why? Because the cognitive mechanisms that normally allow us to do so dissolve, leaving us with only preprogrammed behavior.

While some people will claim that they have no racial biases, or any biases for that matter, a famous experiment called the implicit bias task reveals that almost all of us do, and there's plenty of data to prove it. This bias affects how we process information and perceive the social world around us. However, this bias is subconscious and not easily detected with the naked eye. This has the unfortunate result of making it easy to ignore. Whether or not our implicit racial bias leads to overtly racist attitudes and behaviordepends on an interplay between different brain areas—specifically the amygdala, which lights up when we experience something we perceive to be threatening, and the prefrontal cortex, whose job it is to regulate and suppress that fear response and the associated behavior. But if the prefrontal cortex isn't working right, it can't do its job.

Brain imaging studies have shown that people who display a stronger implicit bias have a stronger electrical response to black or other-race faces in the amygdala. An exaggerated amygdala response is part of what creates the sudden sensation of feeling scared. In people with healthy functioning brains, the fast amygdala response activates the prefrontal cortex, which is slower and plays a regulatory role. When the fear system is triggered, prefrontral areas work to assess the situation rationally, calming the mind and curbing fear-evoked behavior. Thanks to specific neural regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain exercises cognitive control, suppressing the tendency toward tribalism.

The problem is, not everyone has a properly functioning prefrontal cortex, and these people are the ones whose biases control them. They cannot reason those fearful surges away because they lack the mechanisms that make that kind of high-level reasoning possible. Since alcohol and amphetamine addiction can exacerbate this problem, Fox News viewers with such vices will be more vulnerable to the effects of fear mongering, and if they are given a "call to action" by a tribe leader like Trump or Q, more likely to act aggressively in an effort to push their worldview on others. Most supporters will stay home, but with many millions of followers tuned in, it is not surprising that a few thousand showed up to storm the Capitol.

So now that we understand the root cause of it all, perhaps we should view Trump and Q followers differently. They are not normal supporters, but more akin to cult members who have been radicalized by fear, their fates determined due to a lack of free will—which refers to our ability to override our primitive programming and tribal instincts. They are, in a sense, victims. They have been duped and brainwashed by rigid ideologies almost from the time of birth, and those ideologies have been weaponized by divisive politicians like Donald Trump. Does it make more sense to want to punish or fight these people, or to recognize them as agents who've lost their autonomy and ability to reason effectively?

The enemies are the influencers intentionally deceiving these vulnerable people, stoking their fears and fueling their biases. You may say some were racist, crazy, or ignorant before Trump, but we now see how that got that way. Politicians create fear and hatred for votes, Alex Jones does it for clicks, Fox does it for ratings, and QAnon does it for…chaos, I suppose. These are the people we must not let win. The actual followers are pawns in their game.

So, what can we do to release these people from the grips of their psychological captors?

The Path to Deradicalization

The solution is multi-faceted, and change won't happen overnight. One major goal would be to alter the worldview and belief structure of the extremist, and another would be to strengthen their prefrontal cortex, so that the agent is in control, rather than being controlled by the primitive brain.

Fortunately, one fascinating feature of the brain is its plasticity—or ability to rewire itself in response to new information and experience throughout life. Through exposure to new stimuli, new synaptic connections can be formed, creating neural pathways that can promote a restructuring of old and rigid belief systems. To facilitate cognitive restructuring, meditation and attentional exercises can train the prefrontal cortex to attenuate a hyperactive amygdala and control those bad instincts. A campaign to make these kinds of practices commonplace should be a goal of scientists and educators. It is not easy, but it is certainly possible to reverse biased and even racist tendencies through cognitive interventions. Counterbias training has proven effective in making police officers more aware of their implicit biases, though enhanced awareness does not always immediately translate into changes in behavior.

That could require more extreme therapeutic measures, such as pharmacological treatments to reset the brain. Psilocybin, the ingredient in magic mushrooms, or LSD, supplemented with talk therapy could be an effective way to alter rigid worldviews and dissolve biases. In a 2016 article, I suggested LSD therapy for Donald Trump, and although the title may make one chuckle, I seriously believe it would be the most effective way to get Trump to understand the effects of the division he's sowed. Psychedelics work by relaxing belief structures, so that the agent can "achieve a healthy revision of pathological beliefs," to quote psychedelics researcher Robin Carhart-Harris. Unfortunately, this remedy would require that the extremist be open-minded enough to give such an experimental treatment a try. Given that the average Q follower is all about "waking up" and seeing reality as it is, it is not unreasonable to think that a psychedelics campaign could catch on in those communities. Studies have shown that the use of psychedelics is associated with a decrease in authoritarian political views and an increase in views associated with liberalism, like open-mindedness and empathy (though one could argue some "liberals" today have neither of these). These drugs work by dissolving the ego, making one feel more connected to nature and to others.

But the real problem is that our most popular worldviews—the major religions, political ideologies, and national identities—divide us into tribes, and emphasize our differences rather than our similarities and shared human interests. If Terror Management Theory is correct, then the obvious solution is a new cultural and political worldview that unites us all under a common existential goal: the continued survival, progress, and eventually, the outward expansion of humanity. This worldview is called the Cosmic Perspective, and I have outlined it in a Psychology Today blog post titled, Could a 'Cosmic Religion' Unite a Divided Nation? You can learn about how the Cosmic Perspective naturally emerges from Terror Management Theory in this YouTube video on my channel (Road to Omega), Trump Divided America—Here's How We Heal.

Part of being liberal means being compassionate, but this is just as much about practicality as it is empathy. There's really no other choice than trying to make things better. I'll be playing my part by creating more content aimed at coming together—call it propaganda for a psychedelic revolution. Coming together does not mean meeting in the middle—as extreme centrism can be just as counterproductive as any other kind of extremism. We need radical solutions that push us forward, and we cannot go forward if we're at war.

If you'd like to be part of the solution, subscribe to my Substack newsletter, Road to Omega, which is a project aimed at fighting misinformation, healing division, and redistributing wealth and power in America. The project will be tokenized with NFTs (non-fungible tokens), and token holders will benefit from the project's success, so there is value in participating.

Simply stated, Road to Omega is an effort to save the world with science and epistemology. The plan entails:

If you'd like to read more about Road to Omega before subscribing, check out the first Substack newsletter—a plan to save the world with science and epistemology—here. This post lays out the plan in detail and tells you how you can get involved. Alternatively, you can read the much shorter About page.Aside from the newsletter, I will be continuing to publish articles at Raw Story along the same lines, so stay tuned!
Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter@BobbyAzarian.

'Follow Trump off a cliff’: Psychological analysis reveals 14 key traits of people who support the president

As he himself said even before he won the presidential election in 2016, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." Unfortunately for the American people, this wild-sounding claim appears to be truer than not, at least for the majority of his supporters, and that is something that should disturb us. It should also motivate us to explore the science underlying such peculiar human behavior, so we can learn from it, and potentially inoculate against it.

In all fairness, we should recognize that lying is sadly not uncommon for politicians on both sides of the political aisle, but the frequency and magnitude of the current president's lies should have us all wondering why they haven't destroyed his political career, and instead perhaps strengthened it. Similarly, we should be asking why his inflammatory rhetoric and numerous scandals haven't sunk him. We are talking about a man who was caught on tape saying, "When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy." Politically surviving that video is not normal, or anything close to it, and we can be sure that such a revelation would have been the end of Barack Obama or George Bush had it surfaced weeks before the election.

While dozens of psychologists have analyzed Trump, to explain the man's political invincibility, it is more important to understand the minds of his staunch supporters. While there have been various popular articles that have illuminated a multitude of reasons for his unwavering support, there appears to be no comprehensive analysis that contains all of them. Since there seems to be a real demand for this information, I have tried to provide that analysis below.

Some of the explanations come from a 2017 review paper published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology by the psychologist and UC Santa Cruz professor Thomas Pettigrew. Others have been put forth as far back as 2016 by myself, a cognitive neuroscience and psychology researcher, in various articles and blog posts for publications like Psychology Today. A number of these were inspired by insights from psychologists like Sheldon Solomon, who laid the groundwork for the influential Terror Management Theory, and David Dunning, who did the same for the Dunning-Kruger effect

This list will begin with the more benign reasons for Trump's intransigent support, and as the list goes on, the explanations become increasingly worrisome, and toward the end, border on the pathological. It should be strongly emphasized that not all Trump supporters are racist, mentally vulnerable, or fundamentally bad people. It can be detrimental to society when those with degrees and platforms try to demonize their political opponents or paint them as mentally ill when they are not. That being said, it is just as harmful to pretend that there are not clear psychological and neural factors that underlie much of Trump supporters' unbridled allegiance.

The psychological phenomena described below mostly pertain to those supporters who would follow Trump off a cliff. These are the people who will stand by his side no matter what scandals come to light, or what sort of evidence for immoral and illegal behavior surfaces.

1. Practicality Trumps Morality

For some wealthy people, it's simply a financial matter. Trump offers tax cuts for the rich and wants to do away with government regulation that gets in the way of businessmen making money, even when that regulation exists for the purpose of protecting the environment. Others, like blue-collared workers, like the fact that the president is trying to bring jobs back to America from places like China. Some people who genuinely are not racist (those who are will be discussed later) simply want stronger immigration laws because they know that a country with open borders is not sustainable. These people have put their practical concerns above their moral ones. To them, it does not matter if he's a vagina-grabber, or if his campaign team colluded with Russia to help him defeat his political opponent. It is unknown whether these people are eternally bound to Trump in the way others are, but we may soon find out if the Mueller investigation is allowed to come to completion.

2. The Brain's Attention System Is More Strongly Engaged by Trump

According to a study that monitored brain activity while participants watched 40 minutes of political ads and debate clips from the presidential candidates, Donald Trump is unique in his ability to keep the brain engaged. While Hillary Clinton could only hold attention for so long, Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session. This pattern of activity was seen even when Trump made remarks that individuals didn't necessarily agree with. His showmanship and simple language clearly resonate with some at a visceral level

3. America's Obsession with Entertainment and Celebrities

Essentially, the loyalty of Trump supporters may in part be explained by America's addiction with entertainment and reality TV. To some, it doesn't matter what Trump actually says because he's so amusing to watch. With the Donald, you are always left wondering what outrageous thing he is going to say or do next. He keeps us on the edge of our seat, and for that reason, some Trump supporters will forgive anything he says. They are happy as long as they are kept entertained

4. "Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Burn."

Some intelligent people who know better are supporting Trump simply to be rebellious or to introduce chaos into the political system. They may have such distaste for the establishment and Democrats like Hillary Clinton that their support for Trump is a symbolic middle finger directed at Washington. These people do not have their priorities straight, and perhaps have other issues, like an innate desire to troll others, or a deranged obsession with schadenfreude.

5. The Fear-Factor: Conservatives Are More Sensitive to Threat

Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A 2008 study in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals. A brain-imaging study published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety. And a 2014 fMRI study found that it is possible to predict whether someone is a liberal or conservative simply by looking at their brain activity while they view threatening or disgusting images, such as mutilated bodies. Specifically, the brains of self-identified conservatives generated more activity overall in response to the disturbing images.

These brain responses are automatic, and not influenced by logic or reason. As long as Trump continues his fear mongering by constantly portraying Muslims and Hispanic immigrants as imminent dangers, many conservative brains will involuntarily light up like light bulbs being controlled by a switch. Fear keeps his followers energized and focused on safety. And when you think you've found your protector, you become less concerned with offensive and divisive remarks.

6. The Power of Mortality Reminders and Perceived Existential Threat

A well-supported theory from social psychology, known as Terror Management Theory, explains why Trump's fear mongering is doubly effective. The theory is based on the fact that humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitability of one's death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.

Terror Management Theory predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identity, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not. Hundreds of studies have confirmed this hypothesis, and some have specifically shown that triggering thoughts of death tends to shift people towards the right.

Not only do death reminders increase nationalism, they influence actual voting habits in favor of more conservative presidential candidates. And more disturbingly, in a study with American students, scientists found that making mortality salient increased support for extreme military interventions by American forces that could kill thousands of civilians overseas. Interestingly, the effect was present only in conservatives, which can likely be attributed to their heightened fear response.

By constantly emphasizing existential threat, Trump creates a psychological condition that makes the brain respond positively rather than negatively to bigoted statements and divisive rhetoric. Liberals and Independents who have been puzzled over why Trump hasn't lost supporters after such highly offensive comments need look no further than Terror Management Theory.

    7. The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Humans Often Overestimate Their Political Expertise

    Some support Donald Trump do so out of ignorance — basically they are under-informed or misinformed about the issues at hand. When Trump tells them that crime is skyrocketing in the United States, or that the economy is the worst it's ever been, they simply take his word for it.

    The Dunning-Kruger effect explains that the problem isn't just that they are misinformed; it's that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed, which creates a double burden.

    Studies have shown that people who lack expertise in some area of knowledge often have a cognitivebias that prevents them from realizing that they lack expertise. As psychologist David Dunning puts it in an op-ed for Politico, "The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment." These people cannot be reached because they mistakenly believe they are the ones who should be reaching others.

    8. Relative Deprivation — A Misguided Sense of Entitlement

    Relative deprivation refers to the experience of being deprived of something to which one believes they are entitled. It is the discontent felt when one compares their position in life to others who they feel are equal or inferior but have unfairly had more success than them.

    Common explanations for Trump's popularity among non-bigoted voters involve economics. There is no doubt that some Trump supporters are simply angry that American jobs are being lost to Mexico and China, which is certainly understandable, although these loyalists often ignore the fact that some of these careers are actually being lost due to the accelerating pace of automation.

    These Trump supporters are experiencing relative deprivation, and are common among the swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. This kind of deprivation is specifically referred to as "relative," as opposed to "absolute," because the feeling is often based on a skewed perception of what one is entitled to.

    9. Lack of Exposure to Dissimilar Others

    Intergroup contact refers to contact with members of groups that are outside one's own, which has been experimentally shown to reduce prejudice. As such, it's important to note that there is growing evidence that Trump's white supporters have experienced significantly less contact with minorities than other Americans. For example, a 2016 study found that "…the racial and ethnic isolation of Whites at the zip-code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support." This correlation persisted while controlling for dozens of other variables. In agreement with this finding, the same researchers found that support for Trump increased with the voters' physical distance from the Mexican border. These racial biases might be more implicit than explicit, the latter which is addressed in #14.

    10. Trump's Conspiracy Theories Target the Mentally Vulnerable

    While the conspiracy theory crowd — who predominantly support Donald Trump and crackpot allies like Alex Jones and the shadowy QAnon — may appear to just be an odd quirk of modern society, the truth is that many of them suffer from psychological illnesses that involve paranoia and delusions, such as schizophrenia, or are at least vulnerable to them, like those with schizotypy personalities.

    The link between schizotypy and belief in conspiracy theories is well-established, and a recent study published in the journal Psychiatry Research has demonstrated that it is still very prevalent in the population. The researchers found that those who were more likely to believe in outlandish conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the U.S. government created the AIDs epidemic, consistently scored high on measures of "odd beliefs and magical thinking." One feature of magical thinking is a tendency to make connections between things that are actually unrelated in reality.

    Donald Trump and his media allies target these people directly. All one has to do is visit alt-right websites and discussion boards to see the evidence for such manipulation.

    11. Trump Taps into the Nation's Collective Narcissism

    Collective narcissism is an unrealistic shared belief in the greatness of one's national group. It often occurs when a group who believes it represents the 'true identity' of a nation — the 'ingroup,' in this case White Americans — perceives itself as being disadvantaged compared to outgroups who are getting ahead of them 'unrightfully.' This psychological phenomenon is related to relative deprivation (#6).

    A study published last year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found a direct link between national collective narcissism and support for Donald Trump. This correlation was discovered by researchers at the University of Warsaw, who surveyed over 400 Americans with a series of questionnaires about political and social beliefs. Where individual narcissism causes aggressiveness toward other individuals, collective narcissism involves negative attitudes and aggression toward 'outsider' groups (outgroups), who are perceived as threats.

    Donald Trump exacerbates collective narcissism with his anti-immigrant, anti-elitist, and strongly nationalistic rhetoric. By referring to his supporters, an overwhelmingly white group, as being "true patriots" or "real Americans," he promotes a brand of populism that is the epitome of "identity politics," a term that is usually associated with the political left. Left-wing identity politics, as misguided as they may sometimes be, are generally aimed at achieving equality, while the right-wing brand is based on a belief that one nationality and race is superior or entitled to success and wealth for no other reason than identity.

    12. The Desire to Want to Dominate Others

    Social dominance orientation (SDO) — which is distinct but related to authoritarian personality syndrome (#13) — refers to people who have a preference for the societal hierarchy of groups, specifically with a structure in which the high-status groups have dominance over the low-status ones. Those with SDO are typically dominant, tough-minded, and driven by self-interest.

    In Trump's speeches, he appeals to those with SDO by repeatedly making a clear distinction between groups that have a generally higher status in society (White), and those groups that are typically thought of as belonging to a lower status (immigrants and minorities). A 2016 survey study of 406 American adults published last year in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that those who scored high on both SDO and authoritarianism were those who intended to vote for Trump in the election.

    13. Authoritarian Personality Syndrome

    Authoritarianism refers to the advocacy or enforcement of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom, and is commonly associated with a lack of concern for the opinions or needs of others. Authoritarian personality syndrome — a well-studied and globally-prevalent condition — is a state of mind that is characterized by belief in total and complete obedience to one's authority. Those with the syndrome often display aggression toward outgroup members, submissiveness to authority, resistance to new experiences, and a rigid hierarchical view of society. The syndrome is often triggered by fear, making it easy for leaders who exaggerate threat or fear monger to gain their allegiance.

    Although authoritarian personality is found among liberals, it is more common among the right-wing around the world. President Trump's speeches, which are laced with absolutist terms like "losers" and "complete disasters," are naturally appealing to those with the syndrome.

    While research showed that Republican voters in the U.S. scored higher than Democrats on measures of authoritarianism before Trump emerged on the political scene, a 2016 Politico survey found that high authoritarians greatly favored then-candidate Trump, which led to a correct prediction that he would win the election, despite the polls saying otherwise

    14. Racism and Bigotry

    It would be grossly unfair and inaccurate to say that every one of Trump's supporters have prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities, but it would be equally inaccurate to say that many do not. It is a well-known fact that the Republican party, going at least as far back to Richard Nixon's "southern strategy," used tactics that appealed to bigotry, such as lacing speeches with "dog whistles" — code words that signaled prejudice toward minorities that were designed to be heard by racists but no one else.

    While the dog whistles of the past were subtler, Trump's signaling is sometimes shockingly direct. There's no denying that he routinely appeals to racist and bigoted supporters when he calls Muslims "dangerous" and Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "murderers," often in a blanketed fashion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent study has shown that support for Trump is correlated with a standard scale of modern racism.

    Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.

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