Episode 119: Understanding the psychological causes and conditions of terrorism

al-pesso-smiling-head-usabp-shotIn this episode I’m once again joined by American psychologist Albert Pesso, who together with his wife created Pesso-Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP). Albert is, together with notable figures such as Peter Levine and Alexander Lowen, the recipient of  a Lifetime Achievement Award issued by the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy (USABP). I’ve had the great privilege of attending a PBSP-group for two years, a group that was led by one of his students, in Norway. In our first conversation we explored some of the most important aspects of PBSP, and how it can effect change on a personal level. In this episode we shift our focus to terrorism, and Al lays out a mental model for how we can understand the psychological underpinnings and dynamics that drive the terrorist impulse.

(2:30) Terrorism – a wicked issue
We start of our exploration by describing terrorism as a “wicked issue”, a challenge which is universal and planetary in it’s extent, and where there is no single, or simple solution. Albert explains how terrorism awakens the “wicked” or “demonic” side of the self, as well as the “god-side” of the self. There is a swing or dynamic going on, between the godliness and demonic tendencies of the human psyche, and this dynamic is formed early in life. He makes it clear that all human beings have the innate tendency for seeing others as either enemies or friends, but what is it that causes some people to become terrorists and act out on these destructive impulses?

(4:40) Limiting aggression in childhood 
Albert’s main point is that the terrorist impulse is formed or awakened early in life. What he pointed to as “demonic” and “godlike” energy relates more accurately to the two nuclear energies that run human beings, namely aggression and sexuality; the capacity to destroy, and the capacity to create. These energies need to become integrated and modulated, especially during the formative years. This is what the nuclear family does; in an ideal situation it supports the natural unfoldment and modulation of these genetic drives. Basically, there has to be a mother and father to support the natural development of the child. For instance, if there is no father there will be a lesser ability to limit the child’s aggression.

(7:25) “Holes in roles”
The absence of a father-figure will trigger what Albert calls “holes in roles”. Human beings are hardwired for completion, wanting to make what is divided whole, and will naturally seek out what is just. This means that when a child witnesses or experiences something which is not completed or whole, the child will energetically and unconsciously step in and try to fill this space. The problem with this move is that it also awakens the idea in the child, again on an unconscious level, that “I am the only one that can fill this space”, or “without my intervention everything will go wrong”. This “I am the only One”-quality is also why Albert calls it the “Messiah gene”; one person and no other is going to heal the world! Now, this Messiah-impulse, and the energetic filling of a role, is fueled by the limbic system, meaning it has an energetic and emotional quality, not a verbal and conscious expressive quality. When the child grows up, with the aid of limiting figures (mom and dad), the pre-frontal cortex will help to modulate these energies, but if there is no modulation these energies could turn ugly.

For more on “holes in roles” (at pbsp.org)

(9:13) The destructive power of stories of injustice
Albert makes an important distinction, namely between witnessing present injustice and hearing stories of historical injustice. For instance, he gives the example of young children in a Mosque hearing the stories of the Christian crusades, and the atrocities committed against their people by these foreign invaders. He claims that these stories, that the children are inculcated with from an early age, can have a larger impact than witnessing present day injustice. Moreover, societies that exaggerate the importance of historic injustice will actually create psycho-social situations that lead to terrorism. This happens because the child will create an unconscious “movie” inside their head where they are the healer of the situation described. Remember, the human being has a propensity for correcting injustice and making what is broken whole! Furthermore, the child will see the other as the enemy, a move which is thoroughly instinctual.

(11:10) We are hardwired for racial bias 
Albert refers to an article he recently read by journalist Nicholas Christof (May 7 2015), which explains how even babies have biased reactions when seeing pictures of other races. We are hardwired for liking our own people. This innate tendency is instinctual, and probably served an important evolutionary function in the past, but with the advent of higher cognitive capacities, supported by the pre-frontal lobes, the impulse of seeing the other as enemy is replaced, and instead sees diversity. The main point here is that if the child hears of cultural or ethnic difference to early it might trigger the instinctual “warrior-layer” in the psyche, instead of the more accommodating reaction of seeing only difference. This means that one of the underlying causes for terrorism is the stories heard before the pre-frontal cortex can modulate the explosive energy embedded in such stories.

→ Nicholas Christof’s article: “Our Biased Brains“, in the New York Times, May 7, 2015

(13:30) Understanding why people won’t receive what they need
Albert’s understanding of “holes in roles” didn’t come about in relation to terrorism, rather, it emerged in response to a general issue that he experienced when working with patients. He would observe again and again how some people would simply resist having their needs met! The whole idea of PBSP is to create new memories, and this is done by creating ideal situations where the fundamental maturational needs can be met. This makes it possible for the patient to move on with life in a more positive and constructive way. This therapeutic system relies on the fundamental understanding that we all perceive ourselves, and the world we live in, through the lenses created by past experience. It was only 40 years after PBSP was first created that Albert and his wife, Diane Pesso-Boyden, understood that the patients who refused to take in what they needed, were in fact influenced by stories they had heard in the past. It could be stories about their parents, grand-parents our even further back, stories that created the already mentioned “movies”, where the individual unconsciously imagined being the only healer in relation to the stories told. For some this would evoke the impulses of aggression and sexuality in an outward sense, but most people, would suppress these energies, which of course gave rise to depression, anxiety and different kinds of somatic suffering. Regardless, the most important point here is that they lost the ability to receive what they needed.

(16:15) Creating new memories
To support the healing in these people Albert would create a “counter-movie” that would offset the stifling power embedded in the stories they had heard. Depending on the circumstances this could be creating a situation, symbolically of course, through the use of role-play, where the parents would receive what they needed; where the grandmother didn’t loose her husband during the war; where the great-grandfather didn’t loose his child, home etc. When seeing these ideal situations unfold the patient would finally experience a relief. The contained energy would be set free and the patient would subsequently be able to receive what he or she needed herself. People who are able to take in what they need won’t have the need to compensate or act out. This is how the understanding of “holes in roles” ties into the phenomena of terrorism.

→ If you want a brief glimpse of how PBSP actually works, check out the trailer for the documentary “State of Mind”. The footage gives a sense of how one creates “counter movies”.

(17:25) Pre-frontal cortex modulates the limbic system
Albert goes over some of the same territory, this time using dictators as an example. He claims it’s likely that most dictators, for instance Hitler, lacked a father, and their aggression was therefore never limited. Moreover, these individuals would portray themselves as the savior; the “one and only” who could take down the enemy and save their people! He also emphasizes what is needed to counter this kind of destructive development. First of all, every human being growing up needs a nuclear family; an environment that can provide the maturational needs of place, nurture, protection, support and limits. Secondly, children must not be presented with stories of injustice before they can modulate these stories. It’s worth noting that the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain which is responsible for complex reasoning, is not fully developed before the age of 21!

→ See this description of the basic needs, an essential component for understanding what drives human beings (at pbsp.com)

(19:50) A universal phenomena 
It’s also important to understand that the psychological dynamics pointed to by Albert are not culturally specific. It’s not about Muslims, Christians or any other religious group. It’s not limited to certain populations or cultural groups. The principles that drive terrorism are universal! These psychological dynamics can also explain why we’ve seen war throughout human history.

(21:30) Understanding the role of religion in relation to terrorism
When speaking of terrorism it’s natural to speak of religion, and I point to the fact that religion is the cause or inspiration for both good and bad deeds. Also, isn’t it so that many religious stories point to non-violence, peace, love and discipline, and in this regard, serve as a modulator for the harmful manifestations of aggression and sexuality? Albert agrees, but points to how many religions uphold boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, claiming for instance that “our God is the only God”, or “we are the chosen people” etc. He also makes it clear that this dogmatic or sectarian impulse can be found in secular contexts as well, for instance in relation to politics and ideology; “we are the only right party and the other parties need to be destroyed” etc. This kind of polarization is rampant in politics, but there are people trying to change the discourse. Albert highlights Obama’s efforts to bring in negotiation in response to conflicts, and how he himself is an embodiment of diversity (Obama is Christian, his mother is American, his father from Kenya, and he spent some of his first years as a child in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world).

(25:30) Summary
We end of our exploration with a short summary. I would like to add that Albert and I, after the interview, went into a much more open ended and very exciting exploration of how one could possibly create healing situations on a collective level. Is there a way to upscale the principles found in PBSP, so that it’s healing power can effect change in populations at large? This is work in progress and we might come back with another public dialogue on this issue at a later date, so stay tuned. Remember to sign up for the newsletter!

If you feel inspired or provoked by our conversation feel free to add your comments after the interview. You can also send in a written piece of work and get it published together with this episode. Further details can be found here.

Episode links:
Albert Pesso (bio)
Healing the world and healing the self through the creation of new memories, my first interview with Albert Pesso

James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (34) er lærer og arbeider i Osloskolen. Han har bred erfaring innenfor dialogbasert prosessledelse, nærværstrening og konflikthåndtering. Ta kontakt med James på følgende adresse: james.arnfinsen @ gmail.com
James Alexander Arnfinsen (redaktør)
James Alexander Arnfinsen (34) is a teacher, his subjects being geography, religious studies and sports science. He is currently working as a teacher in Oslo, Norway. In his spare time he practices Aikido, a Japanese martial art.
  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is an interesting article going into the concept of “wicked issues”, written by Thomas Jordan, P.hd.: “Skillful Engagement with Wicked Issues A Framework for Analysing the Meaning-making Structures of Societal Change Agents”. He was also a guest on the show back in 2011 (Swedish/Norwegian language).

  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is an interesting article going into the concept of “wicked issues”, written by Thomas Jordan, P.hd.: “Skillful Engagement with Wicked Issues A Framework for Analysing the Meaning-making Structures of Societal Change Agents”. He was also a guest on the show back in 2011 (Swedish/Norwegian language).

  • lbustin@verizon.net

    Jewish people are told to “never forget” the holocaust and we learned about the crusades and the inquisition at an early age. However, we don’t react with the same destructive impulses as Muslims. The Koran is supposed to have directives throughout that terrorists merely follow as good Muslims. I also heard that most are young men who have never amounted to much, held much power and that many are distanced from women. Holding a gun also makes a man feel more powerful and more in control of his environment. If religion is based on superstition in favor of your chosen deity, what socially correct tactic using superstition can be used to defeat Muslim extremism?

    • James Arnfinsen

      Thank you for bringing up this point of reflection. I suppose there isn’t a linear or “mechanical” relationship between the gravity of the stories one hears, and one’s subsequent reactions thereafter? There must be many more variables playing into this cocktail, right? You pointed to some social and cultural variables, regarding Muslim extremism. Your arguments are compelling, however, I would like to challenge you on one point.

      You speak of both Jewish and Muslim people as one coherent category. This is not the way I understand the world. From what I’ve learned in the field of adult development there are many different “meaning-making”-structures or value-bases within a category such as “Jewish” or “Muslim” (or “Atheistic” for that matter). My point is that some Muslims act out in negative ways, yes, and so does some Jewish people, but statistically speaking I think it’s fear to say that most Muslim and Jewish people don’t.

      Given that stories was a prime emphasis in our dialogue I would like to share a story from my own country, just to demonstrate that this “group” you are pointing to is diverse (Feb 21, 2015). My point here is not to stifle the debate, only to support a nuanced exploration:

      More than 1000 Muslims formed a human shield around Oslo’s synagogue on Saturday, offering symbolic protection for the city’s Jewish community and condemning an attack on a synagogue in neighboring Denmark last weekend. Chanting “No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia,” Norway’s Muslims formed what they called a ring of peace a week after Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, a Danish-born son of Palestinian immigrants, killed two people at a synagogue and an event promoting free speech in Copenhagen last weekend.


  • Anders Asphaug

    Whoa! “Terrorist” is such a politicized term, it takes some effort not to interpret what is being said here in political terms.

    I would have liked a more precise definition of what you are talking about here. People who are called “terrorist” by various media and politicians are probably acting from quite different sorts of motives and psycho-social backgrounds.

    • James Arnfinsen

      I think Pesso’s main point is that terrorist activity it’s not political activity, rather, what drives the terrorist is underlying psychological drives. From this perspective it doesn’t matter if the individual is a “terrorist”, or a “freedom fighter”, because the unconscious drives are the same.

  • lbustin@verizon.net

    The largest terrorist threat we face today is the forceful spread of Islam. Many people say Muslims are just following the teachings of the Koran indoctrinated at an early age by parents and religious leaders. These early teachings are probably the scripts to which you imply that become embedded in the minds of otherwise innocent children. Those Muslims who support peace are few and far between and don’t seem to make a difference as those Germans who opposed Hitler. Also, many nations feel they are losing their identity to an Islamic culturalal takeover. Just as new technology can create weapons that can destroy with pinpoint accuracy to the same degree as nuclear but without collateral damage, we need a breakthrough in psychological weapons that can protect societies from atrocities by peaceful means. That is the challenge for people who love peace.

  • James Arnfinsen

    A couple of years ago I saw this great talk by Albert Pesso: “The Roots of Justice are in the Body”. Seeing it again today, after having spoken to Pesso in person, was really helpful. He goes into many details that are relevant in relation to the topics we discussed in the podcast above.

  • James Arnfinsen

    En aktuell kronikk skrevet av Jørgen Lorentzen (27.05.2015): ”
    Islam er i ferd med å bli ensbetydende med undertrykkelse og fanatisk vold”

    Islamske ledere og lærde må ta et globalt initiativ for en islamsk opplysningstid og demokratiseringsprosess.


  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is a video that points to some other root causes for terrorism. https://www.facebook.com/prageru/videos/897194363656754

  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is an interview with cocial psychologist Philip Zimbardo, pointing to some other consequences when children grow up without a stable father-figure (08.07.2015): “Fatherless Generation with Videogames, Online Pornography”

  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is a really interesting documentary about Muslim extremism that tries to investigate the underlying causes that sparked (and still) spark Jihad-movements (November 2015, NRK).

  • James Arnfinsen

    Here is a short but inspiring article written by Otto Scharmer in response to the latest terror attacks in Paris “Shifting the Heart of the Collective”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/otto-scharmer/parisshifting-the-heart-o_b_8591364.html

  • James Arnfinsen

    Interesting article looking at “The radicalization of Luke Skywalker- a jedis path to jihad”:

    With the imminent release of the newStar Wars film, The Force Awakens, many theatergoers are re-watching the original movies to reacquaint themselves with those stories from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This time, however, they may find themselves surprised by how much the film’s characters and themes echo the current War On Terror.


  • James Arnfinsen

    Nice video lecture with Al Pesso on how to create new memories, from Jan 2015: http://pbsp.com/2015/02/04/jan-2015-video-of-introductory-lecture-on-making-new-memories-to-a-pbsp-experiential-group/

  • James Arnfinsen

    Kraftig økning i antall terrorangrep. i 2014 ble mer enn 30 000 drept, i følge Global Terrorism Database. Artikkel fra Aftenposten: http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/uriks/Nesten-ti-ganger-sa-mange-blir-drept-i-terrorangrep-8325856.html

  • James Arnfinsen

    Viktige synspunkter i regi av den danske forfatteren Carsten Jensen. Vi er ikke uskyldige offere for terror, i hvertfall ikke sett fra et kollektivt perspektiv:

    Individuelt var de 130 dræbte i terrorangrebet i Paris uskyldige. Ligesom de dræbte i København var det i februar. Men vi er ikke uskyldige som nationer, mener forfatter Carsten Jensen. Terror er vores fjendes modtræk i en global krig, vi selv deltager i. Derfor bør terrorangrebene også give anledning til, at vi ser mere kritisk på os selv