Propaganda and De-humanization: “The Brain with David Eagleman” PBS

The study of history is the study of human nature. However, it’s not the only way to understand human behavior. Science can also illuminate the mysteries of human behavior. Scientists may approach the problem in a different way, but they are also trying to understand human beings. So, I was thrilled when David Eagleman turned to the subject of ethnic/religious conflict in the third program in a series on the brain.  And he used the War in Bosnia (something I’ve spent years studying) to illustrate the problem.

What have scientists found? That when people are confronted with people in our out group (however defined) our brains react as if they were objects, not human beings. The ability to empathize with those in their out group had been lost. How does this de-humanization happen? Usually, through propaganda.

I’ve spent years studying religious/ethnic conflict to come to the same conclusion. He also proposed the same solution: educate students to detect propaganda. In other words, we need to educate students to be good B.S. detectors and independent thinkers. This is one of the reasons why the humanities are so important, particularly philosophy and history.

Here’s the link to the website for the PBS program:  The Brain with David Eagleman

2 thoughts on “Propaganda and De-humanization: “The Brain with David Eagleman” PBS

  1. I found your blog post through a Google search on “David Eagleman and propaganda.” I work in religious diplomacy, and am doing research for an essay on propaganda and neuroscience to connect to the idea that Christian media can function as propaganda and turn down the empathy felt for certain out-groups, particularly Muslims in our current political climate. One missing piece of the puzzle is a couple of journal articles on neuroscience and propaganda. I’ve heard Eagleman reference such things in his PBS series but have not been able to track anything down. Any suggestions?


    • John,

      That sounds like an interesting project! I searched Eagleman’s work through the ASU libraries and found nothing on this particular topic. The closest thing that I could find was from his book Incognito (see summary below). I even searched propaganda and neuroscience with no luck. I wish I could be of more help. I research religious/ethnic conflict from a historical perspective, but I also try to follow the science as well. I would love to see what you ultimately find, so feel free to contact me when you publish your results. Good luck!


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