Brainwashing, blindsight and domestic violence

October 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Cruelty book coverRecent news from the UK government: they’re changing the definition of ‘domestic abuse‘. The new key phrase is ‘coercive control’. It’s an attempt to get round two problems. One is the issue of police recording separate incidents of violence without spotting the pattern until, in the worst cases, someone ends up dead. Coercive control can serve as a glue binding those incidents together into abuse.

The second problem is that of people trapped in relationships, not necessarily by physical beatings, but by bullying psychological techniques which, though they may leave no mark, can nonetheless be devastating to their victims.

I know those techniques. I wrote about them in my first book, Brainwashing. (For a brief description, see my earlier post.)

You don’t have to be a cult leader, a terrorist mastermind or a secret government agency to do brainwashing. The same techniques can be found in abusive relationships, whether between adults, teenagers, or generations. Abusers seek to isolate and control their victims. They also use strong emotions, repetition, and uncertainty, not least the unpredictability of their own behaviour. Loving one moment, brutal the next, they keep the other person guessing, dreading an outburst and hoping for some sign of affection. It’s an effective way of inflicting chronic stress.

Many people, seeing an abusive relationship, say, ‘Why on earth doesn’t she/he just walk away?’ Perhaps they don’t grasp the practical difficulties — for someone who won’t be functioning at their best in any case — especially when there are houses, joint bank accounts, or worst of all kids involved. Then there are the sunk costs: all the time, effort and agony that has already gone into trying to please and appease. The feeling of failure, the hope that it could still be different. But there may be something more to it as well. Even if you know what’s good for you, that doesn’t mean you’ll act on that knowledge.

Now, this is preliminary stuff — there’s much more work to do — but here I think neuroscience can already shed some interesting light, because it shows that there is indeed a disconnect between knowing something (e.g. that you should leave an abusive partner) and being able to act on it (by walking away).

A classic example is blindsight, a fascinating phenomenon whereby brain damage to the visual cortex can wipe out conscious perception of a stimulus while leaving the person able to react to it. Someone with blindsight can navigate round an obstacle without ostensibly knowing that it’s there. Another example is akinetic mutism, in which a sufferer is aware of their environment but somehow doesn’t respond to it, as if the will to do so has drained away. A third is Parkinson’s disease, which can leave people unable to make voluntary movements. They know what to do, but it just doesn’t happen (although in an emergency, they can make the same movements ‘instinctively’ if they have to).

The patterns of neural activity by which brains represent thoughts, beliefs and knowledge compete for control over our behaviour. Knowing and acting, in brain terms, are distinct.

There’s another factor at play in domestic abuse, and that’s agency. To dominate someone, and make them do what you want, it helps if you can wreck their sense of agency, so that they no longer see themself as a person capable of acting in their own interests. Many abusers, consciously or not, do just that. People talk of ‘destroying self-esteem’, but it’s more than just that: what comes under attack is the very idea of a self as a ‘can-do’ entity. Being told, repeatedly, ‘You’re worthless, useless, a failure’ by someone powerful is hard to handle even when it’s the government or the media saying it, which is why unemployment is so destructive of lives. When the speaker’s a beloved partner or parent, the effects can be appalling. We take our views of ourselves from those around us, far more than we tend to realise.

Here again neuroscience might be able to assist. I wonder if fMRI could tell us more about the effects of this intimate, domestic form of brainwashing? Studies of agency often implicate an area of the brain called the temporoparietal junction (because it sits between the temporal and parietal lobes), a deep-buried area called the insula (Latin for island, because it’s like a submerged island of cortex), and other regions. Do survivors of severe domestic abuse show altered activity in these regions?

I’ve never come across such an experiment. If it were done, and did — or indeed didn’t — show such changes, that would be fascinating. Perhaps it would also help to explain, to those who say ‘Just walk away!’ or ‘Why don’t you just pull yourself together?’, why those easy words are so hard to turn into actions.



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