The Viral Code of Pathological Violence

 There is a saying attributed to the 1960’s philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.”  We don’t see that which surrounds us. 

We all live in a brain.  The brain has a set of networks called the attachment system that governs all aspects of love and bonding throughout the lifespan, including grief and loss.  If the brain is compared to a computer, then the attachment system represents the love-and-bonding software program of the brain.

Since we all live in a brain, and since all brains have the love-and-bonding “software program” of the attachment system, we become accustomed to the operation of our own particular attachment motivations as a fish becomes accustomed to the water in which it swims.  Just as the fish doesn’t see the water, we don’t see the operation of our attachment networks.  Our attachment system and its motivations are too familiar to us, our attachment system simply forms the ground of our social experience – an invisible influence because it surrounds us everywhere we turn.

In interpreting the actions of others, we typically use our own experience to make sense of the experience of others as we try to understand their motivations.  We apply our own motivations and expectations for love and social bonding to others, assuming they have broadly similar motivations.  Typically, this application of our own love-and-bonding system to the motivations of others creates a relatively accurate understanding for the social motivations of other people, and the actions of other people generally tend to make sense to us.  This allows us to then coordinate our social motivations and actions to their social motivations and actions.

We live in a social sea of our attachment networks (and a related second social system that creates a shared psychological connection; called “intersubjectivity”).  We generally aren’t aware of how our attachment system is guiding and directing our social choices, interpretations, and responses.  We swim in the water of our social relationships without recognizing the various currents and flows of the water that organize and guide our social actions and our social bonding behavior.

But when the attachment system is significantly dysfunctional in someone else, we then glimpse the water through the fish that’s out of water; in the social incapacity of a child with autism, in the unfathomable cruelty of a sociopathic criminal, in the isolative social behavior of the schizoid personality, or in the chaotic relationship behavior of the borderline personality.

The characteristic biases that are created by our own and by other’s attachment networks we call “personality” characteristics.  Generally, we allow for a broad swath of “personality” tendencies in other people’s attachment system expression as being normal-range, and we flex our own attachment networks and social motivations to allow us to understand the other person’s social motivations and social behavior.  Someone who has a socially engaged and gregarious “personality” can still also understand the motivations of others who may have more socially withdrawn and reserved “personalities.”  We typically allow for a broad range of normal as we swim in the invisible shared water of the our brain’s social bonding networks, accepting our social motivations without fully understanding their complex origins in the attachment networks of our brain.

But we can catch a glimpse of the invisible influence of the brain’s attachment networks when the attachment system of someone else is severely dysfunctional.  Their social motivations become incomprehensible to us, their love-and-bonding behavior may be avoidant or chaotic, their grieving surrounding perceived loss may become distorted in ways that are unrecognizable to us as sadness surrounding loss, and their social behavior becomes significantly dysfunctional. 

Incomprehensible.  Why did they do that?  Their social behavior makes no sense to us.  When we try to apply our own normal-range attachment networks to understanding their social actions (a process called empathy), trying to make sense of what motivated their social actions, we can’t, it is impossible for us to understand what motivated their actions… their actions don’t make sense to us. 

We are like fish who are swimming in an invisible social water that surrounds us.  They are like a fish out of water, the autistic child, the sociopath, the borderline personality.  It is impossible for us to understand their motivations.

But not if we understand the attachment system, its developmental origins, its functioning, and the characteristic causes for its dysfunctioning.  Once we understand the functioning of a deviant attachment network, then the deviant social behavior it creates becomes comprehensible.

Without an understanding for the brain’s social-regulatory system for love and social bonding, the cruelty of the terrorist mind is incomprehensible to us.  We cannot comprehend the motivation for flying planes into the World Trade Center, for placing a bomb at the Boston Marathon, for creating a killing platform on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel.  What could motivate someone to do something so horrific?   It is incomprehensible.

However, it is only incomprehensible when compared to our normal-range attachment systems, the water of social bonding that so completely envelops us that we don’t even see its operation.  But the actions of the terrorist mind are not incomprehensible.  A brain produced these actions of horrific violence.  We need to understand the brain.  We need to understand the social bonding system of the brain in order to understand the profound dysfunction to the social bonding networks that leads to the insanity of pathological violence.

Our entry point into comprehension is through the symptom features of the pathology:

A complete absence of empathy;

The absence of shared social morality;

The desire to inflict immense suffering in others.

These characteristic features are all produced within the brain’s social networks of the terrorist mind.  These actions that seem so incomprehensible to us are all fully understandable once we understand how the attachment networks of the brain operate.  We cannot understand the terrorist mind by comparing it to our normal-range socially organized mind.  We must first see the water to understand what went wrong in the mind of pathological violence.

Viral Source Code in a Software Program

Think of the brain as an information processing system, like a computer.  The neurological networks are analogous to the computer’s “hardware.”  The brain then runs various “software programs” on its neurological hardware, “software programs” for sensory perception, for language, for social bonding, for motor control, for reasoning.

The attachment system is the brain’s software program for love-and-bonding, like a word processing program running on a computer.  Just like the operation of the software programs used by computers are based on their computer code, the brain’s software program for love and social bonding (the attachment system) has analogous “computer code” that guides the person’s social interpretations, social responses, and social behavior.  

Just like the word processing software on a computer has computer code governing the functioning of the software, the brain’s software program for love and social bonding contains “computer code” governing our social bonding behavior.

Differing coding instructions contained within a software program will create the software program’s differing characteristic responses to information.  Using the same computer hardware, an accounting software package uses its software code to process information in a different way from the way the word processing software on the computer processes its information. 

So too, the brain’s “software program” for social bonding uses its distinctive “computer code” to process information on the brain’s neurological hardware differently than the brain’s software programs for visual-spacial perception, language, reasoning, etc.  Same computer, different software packages doing different characteristic things.

Within the love-and-bonding software of the brain, the attachment networks, differing “software code” in our attachment networks will create differing social responses – our different personality characteristic and our differing characteristic approaches to social behavior.  Damaged computer code within a software program will cause the program to become dysfunctional, and severely damaged computer code in a software program may lead the entire software program to crash.

The terrorist mind contains severely damaged “software code” in the brain’s social bonding software.  It’s analogous to a computer virus that infects the love-and-bonding system of the brain.  The damaged “software code” within the attachment networks of the brain crashes the social bonding system, resulting in the symptom features of pathological anger, pathological hatred, and pathological violence.  All of this pathology results from severely damaged “software code” in the love-and-bonding system of the brain.

The horror of 911.  The Boston marathon bombing.  Sandy Hook.  The Pulse nightclub shooting.  The truck attack in Nice.  The Paris shootings.  The Christmas attack in Berlin.  The summer camp shooting in Norway.  The Mumbai terror attacks.  The violence in Barcelona.  The subway bombing in St. Petersburg.  The attacks in London.  The Manchester bombing.  Las Vegas.

The actions of the terrorist mind are incomprehensible to us. 

But they are not incomprehensible if one knows where to look in the “computer code” of the brain’s love-and-bonding software.  The formation of the terrorist mind is an attachment-related pathology; it is a pathology emerging from damaged information structures (“software code”) in the love and social bonding system of the brain.

The pathological violence of the terrorist mind is created by a characteristic set of damaged “software code” in the love-and-bonding system of the brain.  The entry into understanding what seems to be incomprehensible is through the core symptoms of the pathology; the complete absence of normal-range empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and the person’s desire to create immense suffering in others.

The current approach to understanding terrorism is inadequate because the terrorism “experts” are not looking in the right places.  They are not looking to the deviant “software code” of the attachment networks.  Do we need to interview the terrorist to read the damaged “software code”?  No.  We can decipher the damaged code by the effects it has on the person’s behavior; the complete absence of normal-range empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and the person’s desire to create immense suffering in others.  When we understand the coding structure of the attachment system, this set of characteristic symptoms identifies exactly the damaged “software code” within the coding structure of the attachment system.

The anti-terrorism “experts” are not looking in the right place.  They are not experts in the coding structure of the attachment system so they don’t know where to look to find the pathology.  In 2004, the Committee on the Psychological Roots of Terrorism for the Madrid Summit on Terrorism, Security and Democracy reached the incorrect conclusion that “explanations at the level of individual psychology are insufficient in trying to understand why people become involved in terrorism.  The concepts of abnormality or psychopathology are not useful in understanding terrorism.”

Nonsense.  They are simply not looking in the proper place.

Pathological violence is created by a set of damaged information structures (“software code”) in the attachment networks of the brain.  It is analogous to a “computer virus” in the “code structure” of the brain’s software program for social bonding; the attachment networks of the brain.

Through my work with attachment-related pathology I understand the coding structure of the attachment system.  The characteristic symptom features of pathological violence identify the damaged information structures (the deviant “software code”) in the attachment networks of the terrorist mind.

Just as a computer virus will be downloaded from computer to computer, so too the “viral code” within the attachment networks that creates pathological violence spreads through damaged attachment networks in brains that are made vulnerable by subtle but characteristic forms of attachment-related trauma.

Unlocking the Pathology

Empathy Symptoms:  How are empathy networks disabled in the social bonding system of the brain?  I know how.  I see the pathogenic structures in the attachment networks that are creating the terrorist mind. 

To my professional colleagues:  Understand how the empathy networks are disabled and you will gain critical insight into the formation and functioning of the terrorist mind.  First, understand how normal-range empathy develops in the attachment-related and intersubjectivity networks of the brain.  This will then open the door to understanding how the empathy system becomes disabled by the attachment-related trauma pathology in the terrorist mind.

To repair a car problem we must first understand the normal functioning of the car’s engine.  The car’s symptoms will then direct us to the source of the problem. 

To fix a problem in empathy we must first understand how the normal-range empathy system develops and functions.  The features of the pathology will then direct us to the source of the problem.

Moral Symptoms:  How do the shared social morality networks in the brain of the terrorist mind become disabled?  Again, first understand the formation and operation of the brain’s shared morality system (the intersubjectivity system).

From Daniel Stern:  “The intersubjective system can be considered separate from and complementary to the attachment motivational system.” (Stern, 2004, p. 100)

From Daniel Stern:  “Cohesion within human groups is greatly enhanced by moral suasion.  I will argue that intersubjectivity is the basic condition for morality.  The “moral emotions” (shame, guilt, embarrassment) arise from being able to see yourself in the eyes of another.” (Stern, 2004, p. 104)

From Daniel Stern:  “In brief, intersubjectivity contributes to group survival.  It promotes group formation and coherence.  It permits more efficient, rapid, flexible, and coordinated group functioning.  And it provides the basis for morality to act in maintaining group cohesion and language to act in group communication.” (Stern, 2004, p. 105)

Inflict Suffering:  Where does a desire to inflict immense suffering come from?  That is a critical door to understanding the terrorist mind.  Here we find variants of the pathology. 

The symptom feature of a desire to cause suffering is incredibly valuable in unlocking the deviant “software code” creating the terrorist mind. 

The desire to inflict suffering is caused by a specific set of damaged information structures in the attachment networks of the brain.  Damage to this specific set of information structures (“software code structures”) could potentially have several causal sources, but these potential causal sources are limited.  There are only a few ways of creating such severe damage to these specific information structures in the attachment system. 

These differing causal origins lead to several variant strains of the terrorist mind, such as the grandiose variant evidenced in someone like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the group-mind variant evidenced in 911 and the Paris shooting, and the isolative loner variant evidenced in the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Manchester bombing, and the Las Vegas shooting (I also strongly suspect that there is a gender variant manifestation to the pathology as well).  These variant strains of pathological violence reflect associated “software structures” created by the several differing causal origins creating the desire to inflict suffering, but the core set of damaged information structures is the same.

The desire to create suffering typically manifests along with a perception of “victimization,” which then feeds the development of “moral righteousness” in the terrorist mind.  This represents an important constellation of symptom features created by damage to a specific set of information structures in the attachment system, a specific “viral code” in the attachment networks of the brain.

The core “viral code” creating the terrorist mind is the same across variants, creating the characteristic symptom pattern of the complete absence of normal-range empathy, the absence of shared social morality, and the desire to cause immense suffering.  The differing variants of the “terrorist mind” are created by the associated damaged information structures surrounding this core “viral code” contained in the attachment networks of the brain.

Associated Pathology Features

Motivational Systems:  The attachment system is a primary motivational system of the brain.  The viral code of the terrorist mind therefore has access to the motivational networks of the brain.  The pathology captures the person’s motivational directives and diverts the person’s motivation into the expression of pathological violence.

Identity Systems:  The attachment networks of the brain have extensive neurological linkages into the identity structures of the brain, and indeed the primary information structures in the attachment system form the ground foundation for identity.  The damaged “software code” structures in the attachment networks that create the pathological violence of the terrorist mind strongly engage and then distort the person’s identity structures, and motivate the person toward a shared deviant identity with the pathology of other brains sharing the same viral code.  The strong involvement of the brain’s identity structures is a prominent associated feature of pathological hatred and pathological violence that emerges from the attachment-related viral code structure.

Group Mind:  In some cases, the viral code amplifies itself through the intersubjective system by forming a shared social field (the terrorist group), while in other cases the viral code isolates the person in social alienation (the loner).  These variant expressions are dependent on a whether a key set of information structures in the attachment networks governing social bonding motivations are damaged or remain active.

Triggering:  Identifying the triggers for activating the pathology is what I’m currently unraveling.  This is critical to stopping the pathology.  There are a lot of brains that carry the attachment-trauma code for pathological hatred and anger, yet these brains do not trigger into the pathological violence of the terrorist mind.  Why does the viral code trigger into pathological violence in some brains and not in others?  That’s what I’m currently working to unlock.

The Las Vegas shooter remained relatively normal-range for 64 years.  I know why he did what he did, I know the pathogenic “source code” for the pathology, but I don’t yet know why the pathogen in the attachment networks didn’t trigger in the prior 64 years and then would trigger now.

Ultimately, once The Childress Institute is up and running, and once we’ve solved the attachment-related pathology of “parental alienation” in high-conflict divorce (AB-PA), then I’ll hopefully be able to work with governmental agencies, either in the U.S. or internationally, to be able to directly interview terrorist prisoners who are in custody to locate the triggering psychological “source code” for activating pathological violence. Identifying the triggering source code for pathological violence is challenging. 

In my prior career experience when I worked on a Department of Justice/FEMA project on the psychological assessment of juvenile firesetting behavior, I looked into the research literature on risk assessment.  The risk assessment ability of professional psychology is extraordinarily poor.  The prediction of violent behavior is essentially impossible.  We can identify a variety of risk factors, but many people have these risk factors and yet they don’t trigger into violence.  The best predictor is past behavior, but by that time it’s too late.

To identify the triggering psychological “source code” for pathological violence I need information that is not available from the interviews with terrorists that I’ve researched so far, because the terrorism “experts” reporting on the terrorist mind don’t know what to look for in acquiring information.  I need to be in the same room with the terrorist mind that has already activated to potentially acquire the information I need to identify the triggering source code for the pathogenic violence. 

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857

Stern, D. (2004). The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. (emphasis added)

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