Weber, himself an avid gamer, initially thought the idea of using video games to test people’s reaction to violence was crazy, but then he and his colleagues eventually jury-rigged a way to do it: they placed a screen at the back of the functional MRI scanner, which the subject views through a mirror image reflected in the front, while using a joystick to control their avatar. As the subject hunts for innocent victims to kill off, researchers measure activation of the neural pathways.
“We have a condition with full violence: They drive and run over little animals and pets,” Weber says. “They kill. It’s just terrible.”
Six years ago, Weber and his colleagues demonstrated that violent video games activated the same neural pathways as real violence. What they’re after now is looking at whether these same responses, particularly in those with the warrior gene, can be altered by chemicals, like Quetiapine, an anti-psychotic drug that lowers aggressive tendencies.
In a recent experiment, Weber and his collaborators tested two groups of people playing Carmageddon, and a non-violent control version simulating non-aggressive behavior. In the tests, one group received Quetiapine three successive days prior to the brain imaging experiment, and the other a placebo. The results, he says, demonstrated that Quetiapine did indeed alter the neural pathways responsible for violence, suggesting the drug could modulate a particularly aggressive response to violence. The next step, he says, will be to repeat the study and correlate it with people who have the warrior gene.
Of course, Weber is quick to caution that it’s still early days for this research, and no one is suggesting that violence, let alone political violence, be combatted with drugs.
That’s not to say there aren’t any applications for this work: Hatemi says his ultimate goal is develop methods to combat violence. “We’re looking to find ways to better identify and possibly intervene in situations to reduce the level of political violence,” he says.
But when it comes to situations like that in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, it may already be too late. The idea is to identify people in childhood with a genetic propensity to violence, and change their environment at that point, according to Hatemi.
“Intervention is not going to come in when somebody is a fully grown adult,” Hatemi says. “I think at that stage intervention is possible, but very difficult.”
Which raises the question of why national security agencies are interested in understanding the neurological or biological causes of violence at all. For Weber and his video games, the applications are still unclear.
“I think it’s valuable for the Pentagon and other militaries to look at that and respond to developments in cognitive science,” says Weber, “but to make any concrete operational recommendations, that would be a long shot.”
21 September 2012: This article was updated to clarify that the interview with Peter Hatemi was conducted before the attack in Benghazi.