Mobs and Neuroscience

Some crimes are beyond the pale of comprehension. This is one of those:

After dark on June 18, the police say, as many as 10 armed assailants repeatedly raped a Haitian immigrant in her apartment at Dunbar Village and then went further, forcing her to perform oral sex on her 12-year-old son. They took cellphone pictures of their acts. They burned the woman's skin and the boy's eyes with cleaning fluid, forced them to lie naked together in the bathtub, hit them with a broom and a gun and threatened to set them on fire.

Neighbors did not respond to her screams, and no one called the police. The victims ended up walking a mile to the nearest hospital afterward.

Read the article for the horrifying details. There is something uniquely ghastly about crimes involving crowds. Being part of a mob anesthetizes us to our moral instincts, so that we become capable of the most ghastly acts. In my opinion, Gustave Le Bon's 1895 treatise remains one of the most perceptive accounts of crowd psychology. (Hitler drew on Le Bon's insights while developing his propaganda programs.) Another classic of the genre is Bill Buford's Among the Thugs, a first person account of British soccer gangs.

Of course, crowds are also responsible for some of the most rewarding moments of human experience. While hyperscanning has already generated some interesting results, it's tough to imagine an experiment that can capture the visceral feelings felt by a room of churchgoers, or fans waving lighters at a rock concert, or marchers at a political rally. Everyone has felt these feelings - I feel them every time I go to a Bruce show - and yet they remain utterly mysterious. To measure the unique euphoria of a crowd is to break the spell: it's one of those Heisenbergesque entities where the act of studying the phenomenon alters the phemonenon.

It's worth considering just how little we know about the neuroscience of crowds. We still have no idea how mobs affect the brain, or why groups of people are capable of such awful things. This is largely due to the limitations of experiments: until Montague, et. al. pioneered the technique of hyperscanning in 2002, it was virtually impossible to monitor the interaction of real people in an fMRI machine. This branch of social psychology remained stubbornly non-reductionist. All of our brain imaging revolved around isolated individuals.

But there's a very urgent and practical reason to study the neural underpinnings of crowds. If we are ever going to understand some of our most unspeakable crimes, or the strange allure of group violence, we need to figure out a way to look inside the minds of mobs. Hopefully, neuroscientists of the future will figure something out.

Any suggestions?


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Interesting post - it's clear that brain changes must take place in some mob settings, as participants exhibit behaviors that are inconsistent with their past actions and beliefs, and may seem inexplicable later even by the same individual. Doing neuroscience on crowds is indeed a tall order. It seems much like particle physics, in which the process of measurement affects the outcomes. Even if highly portable brain monitoring equipment existed, having people wearing it in an emotional mob would hardly be conducive to normal crowd or individual behavior.

More likely, the first strides could be made by simulating a crowd situation for an individual in an environment where brain activity can be measured. Being part of a "virtual reality" crowd might give some clues as to what happens in the real thing. Even flat-screen movies can certainly produce emotional reponses in their viewers; simulating an immersive crowd experience would seem to be a possibility. Imperfect, perhaps, and lacking the chemistry (literally) of side-to-side bodies breathing the same air and physically contacting each other, but it might capture the psychological mood of the crowd.

Thanks for raising an interesting and provocative topic.