‘Your Brain on Grievances Looks a Lot Like Your Brain on Drugs’

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(Illustration: Pixabay)
(Illustration: Pixabay)

If grievance is a form of addiction, then “your brain on grievances looks a lot like your brain on drugs.” That’s the argument laid out by violence researcher James Kimmel, Jr.

If the argument holds water, an expanded understanding of grievance retention (and possibly the victimhood culture that severe grievances pan out into) could shed new light on the “push/pull” dynamics that draw young people to extremist ideologies.

Kimmel is a lawyer and a lecturer in psychiatry at Yale University of Medicine, who believes the science of addiction can be used to understand grievances, retaliation and violent crime. Writing for Politico, Kimmel breaks down the parallels he has found in “brain biology” between substance addiction and grievance.

Scientists have found that in substance addiction, environmental cues such as being in a place where drugs are taken or meeting another person who takes drugs cause sharp surges of dopamine in crucial reward and habit regions of the brain, specifically, the nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum. This triggers cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through intoxication.

Recent studies show that similarly, cues such as experiencing or being reminded of a perceived wrong or injustice — a grievance — activate these same reward and habit regions of the brain, triggering cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through retaliation. To be clear, the retaliation doesn’t need to be physically violent—an unkind word, or tweet, can also be very gratifying.”

What Kimmel is pointing out here is different from just a one-time grievance, or even a grievance revisited. The underlying momentum shaping a grievance into an addiction is when a grievance is pushed into re-animation through the emotional triggers and experiential anchors that first created the trauma or grievance.

With his background in violence research, Kimmel explores the next step after a grievance becomes a new focal point in an identity construct:

“Although these are new findings and the research in this area is not yet settled, what this suggests is that similar to the way people become addicted to drugs or gambling, people may also become addicted to seeking retribution against their enemies—revenge addiction. This may help explain why some people just can’t let go of their grievances long after others feel they should have moved on—and why some people resort to violence.”

Noting that the “hallmark of addiction is compulsive behavior despite harmful consequences,” the question that rises in light of Kimmel’s research, is: Is the hyper polarization the United States is witnessing on a national scale the result of a form of grievance addiction, and if so, how does such a fixation on a psychological or emotional wound further drive radicalization and recruitment to extremist causes?

The point for extremism prevention programming is to further understand at what point do those grievances form an identity where taking action becomes central to addressing the grievance or promoting the identity — meaning, when do the attached grievances become so severe that they drive the narrative of taking violent action to address the issue either directly or as part of an in-group?

Classic “push” factors in radicalization and extremism include the feeling of alienation, marginalization and rage. For researchers taking on the task of sifting through the war of extremes in 2020 and beyond, the challenge will be creating more pathways to help broader communities understand the parallels between the changing shape of radicalization, with more concrete and internalized concepts such as addiction and mental health.