Neuroscientist: Radical Religion, Extreme Beliefs, May One Day be 'Cured'

Developments in neuroscience may one day open the possibility that members of radical religious groups and those who hold extreme beliefs, such as radical Islamists or those who beat their children, may be "cured" of their "illness," neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor said Wednesday.

During the Hay Festival in Wales, Taylor was asked by an audience member to speculate about developments that could occur in the next 60 years with neuroscience. She answered that people with "certain beliefs" could be "treated."

Someone who has "become radicalized" by a "cult ideology" that is not "a personal choice" or "a matter of pure free will," she said, could be viewed as having "something like obsessive compulsive disorder, some kind of mental disturbance that can be treated."

"Now in many ways, practically, that's a very positive thing," she added, "because there are, no doubt, beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage. I mean they really do a lot of harm. And, I am not just talking about the obvious candidates like radical Islam or some of the more extreme cults. I am talking about things like the belief that it is OK to beat your children. That sort of stuff. So, these beliefs are very harmful, but they are not normally categorized as mental illness."

Neuroscience may one day be able to stop a person from having those beliefs, Taylor explained.

"So, if you could use neuro-scientific techniques to work out which circuits were fueling that addiction, that sense of strength in the belief, and change them, then you really have the capacity to really shape society to make it a lot safer for a lot of people," she said.

Taylor began and ended her remarks by warning that there are some serious ethical concerns with using these potential techniques as well.

"But, and here is where I worry about the positive versus the negative, there are also huge libertarian implications for that as well," she warned.

Taylor is a visiting researcher at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control (2006). Her most recent book is The Brain Supremacy: Notes from the Frontiers of Neuroscience (2012).

You can hear audio of her talk at the Hay Festival website. Her remarks about changing radical religious beliefs can be heard at around the 50 minute mark.