What causes people to do bad things? Bad things happen everyday, and some truly horrific things have happened over the last several weeks.
What if there is something wrong with our brains, a biological reason for doing something bad?
On Aug 1st, 1966 a student (Whitman) at the University of Texas at Austin climbed a tower on campus armed with several rifles. Over the next hour he killed 16 people. In the months before the killings, the shooter told a psychiatrist of his overwhelming violent impulses. In a suicide note he wrote
I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasksThe Whitman Archives. Austin American-Statesman. July 31, 1966.
He also asked in the same note that an autopsy be performed to determine if a biological cause for his feelings and intense headaches could be discovered. A subsequent autopsy discovered a brain tumor. While the investigation at the time could not confirm that the tumor contributed to his actions, they could not rule it out. One theory is that the tumor pressed against Whitman’s amygdala , a part of the brain related to anxiety and the flight-or-flight response.
Another case with conclusive results was the story of a 40 year old married man with a stepdaughter. Out of nowhere he began to visit prostitutes, and visited websites which focused on pedophilia. He soon made advances on his stepdaughter and when his wife found out, kicked him out of the house. He was found guilty of child molestation and ordered to complete a 12-step rehabilitation program for sexual addiction or go to jail.
He could not even fight the urges in the addiction program, and made advances toward the staff and other clients. The night before he was to turn himself in for his prison sentence, he was rushed to the hospital with a headache and loss of balance. Even at the hospital he solicited female members of the staff for sexual favors. From an article on this case:
Scans later revealed that he had a brain tumor, which may or may not have been related to the injury. Days after it was removed, the man’s life was transformed.
Hours later he regained bladder control and his gait returned to normal. Seven months later, he has completed a Sexaholics Anonymous program, and was allowed to return home to his wife and stepdaughter.
But he became concerned when he started to develop persistent headaches and started to collect pornography again. The tumor that had caused his pedophilia had returned. When it was removed, he was once again cured.
Scientists concluded that the tumor interfered with the orbifrontal cortex which helps to regulate social behavior and likely exacerbated his pre-existing interest in pornography, and “manifesting sexual deviancy and pedophilia”.Independent newspaper
This is a pretty wild story, but how do we reconcile this with our current way of treating criminals? In a hundred years from now, will we look back at our present day justice system and have the same repulsion as we do when we look back at the medical practice of bloodletting a hundred years ago?
How does this work in a religious context? If all our actions are biological, where does that leave free will/agency? How can one be judged for an action that was not freely taken? I guess in a Plan of Salvation sense, one could argue that God knows our heart, and in the example above would not hold the man accountable, even though he would have been excommunicated from the Mormon church.
We live in a fallen world. But there will be a millennium of a thousand years, and everything will be made right. No more tears. No more brain tumors, either. People will be able to resume or maybe even start their journeys on the straight and narrow path.
In the meantime, we do the best we can. We no longer see seizures as possession, for example, and maybe one day we’ll diagnose and treat brain tumors sooner.
An aside:. The millennium has been completely erased from some church publications, including Preach My Gospel. I do not understand why. I think the doctrine of a millennium is powerful, simultaneously exemplifying justice and mercy. To me, the millennium is a crucial part of the Lord’s plan.
My son attended a stake primary activity today and told me they said something he thought was ridiculous, the context of it being that if something you think makes you sad or feel bad, it’s because Satan put the thought in your mind. I was taught this same idea and yeah, it can make us feel better and absolved of responsibility, but my son and I talked about how good people think and say and do bad things because we’re people. And yes, sometimes there are medical issues involved, but I think more often than not, we throw Satan under the bus when he has nothing to do with our behavior. Because that’s what we were (and still are) taught. Because we believe we have a millennium and eternity where everything will be made right because of Christ. Yet somehow, if those beliefs allow us to excuse our own behavior, I think we’re missing what Christ is really about, which I happen to think is to help us in the here and now, not the elsewhere and later. Maybe not really the question you were asking, but on my mind today….
@Allison, good grief! What a ridiculous thing to teach kids. I agree with what you said, but my take is a little different from yours. Thoughts that make you feel good and thoughts that make you feel bad, thoughts that make you happy and thoughts that make you sad are all normal, everyday parts of the human experience. I believe that sometimes those thoughts that make me feel bad or sad are nudges of conscience to help me do or be better. Of course, they could also be caused by disorders such as anxiety or depression. They could be the result of trauma or abuse. Or a bad day. Or grief. Or being bullied on the playground. Or a brain tumor. Or not enough time in the sun. Perhaps Satan, but that certainly shouldn’t be the go-to assumption. You say ascribing them to Satan lets us off the hook. I’m more prone to think it would make us feel worse, like there’s something evil or shameful about feeling sad or bad, which are emotions experienced by everyone.
When I married him, my first husband was sweet and thoughtful and funny. Nine years later he was cold and selfish and completely without empathy. He was awful. I was ready to divorce him. It turned out he had frontal temporal dementia and had no control over his changed behavior.
As a people, I think we are more easily compassionate and understanding for some conditions than others. (Down syndrome or similar developmental disorders—automatic exaltation.) As we learn more, we do better. (Dementia or TBI or brain tumor —I think nobody expects repentance here; we assume they will be judged on how they were *before* the illness or injury. Autism spectrum —I *think* we are becoming more understanding as we learn more about it, although there’s still probably a lot of misplaced judgment.)
Other conditions we don’t seem to have as much patience with. Depression? Fight it. Trauma or prolonged grief? Get over it. Personality disorder, such as narcissism? Stop being a complete a-hole. Substance addiction? Be strong and quit. Social phobia? Stop your self indulgence and get your butt in the pew. ADHD? Just sit still.
Yet we can see on scans how brains are impacted by these and other conditions , just like brains are impacted by dementia or TBI. Maybe as we learn more, we’ll do better with these types of issues, too.
And this isn’t even touching on other types of issues, like food and housing insecurity. Don’t think that stress doesn’t change your brain.
The conclusion I’ve come to is this is exactly why we are commanded not to judge. We don’t know. We really, really don’t know. We should be compassionate with ourselves and others while doing our best to protect ourselves and others from harm.
As for agency, I think it’s an important concept for personal growth and responsibility to others, but I also think it’s far messier than we’ve been led to believe.
In both examples the question of guilt or innocent was never in doubt. The only question is, was the guilty party able to resist their impulses. Given that only God knows the answer to that question all we mere mortals can do is speculate.
One take on this issue was best expressed by Flip Wilson in his most successful comedy album of all time entitled “The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress”. Wilson, in the persona of Geraldine a preacher’s wife, tells her husband how the devil tempted her beyond her ability to resist. Great clips of Wilson as Geraldine from the Ed Sullivan show are on YouTube. Or course all of this flies in the face of this scripture.
Corinthians 10:13 “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”
Or if you prefer this quote from Schopenhauer who said, and I paraphrase, “You can do what you will but you can’t will what you will”
While I don’t think we can settle this issue once and for all I prefer to believe that I’m accountable to God for what I do and not what I think or feel, a perspective that is far more psychologically healthy than why I did what I did. As for everyone else who am I to say.
Bishop Bill, these are great questions that I think about a lot as I sit through seminars given by my colleagues who do neuroscience. I have definitely concluded that the simplistic story of good and evil usually taught in the LDS church does not match the complexity of what we are learning about human behavioral. I appreciate that many of the mainline Protestant churches are beginning to incorporate some of this complexity into their preaching.
These questions are definitely ones we need to wrestle with as a society as we think about our judicial and criminal system. So much of that was build on the foundation of Judeo-Christian notions of guilt and punishment, and it becomes more and more obvious that this is inadequate.
But right now, I don’t think we can realistically say we can translate any information from a brain scan into actionable data for interpreting or changing behavior except for tumors. Shrinking tumors can definitely change behavior, but there one is really trying to treat the tumor itself as pathology, and the behavior change that comes along with it is secondary.
We know enough to feel confident that there are biological roots to every preference and behavior, but it very likely that people can also exert control and choice in meaningful ways for most behaviors. I do hope in 100 years we have a much better understanding of human behavior and I am confident that new understanding will come from years of hard science and not a revelation to someone at 50 N Temple.
I do think religion can help pass on the wisdom of the past about justice and accountability, but if that isn’t tempered with a lot of new understanding from science, it can be highly detrimental. (DHO on anything related to LGBTQ is a good example for how dogmatic insistence on previous religious “truths” as being meaningful ways to understand human behavior fails.)
As the father of four adult children, I really have no idea why they turned out so well. All four (as of June 2022) are happy, productive, independent people.
I think my wife and I did a pretty good job raising them but you know what? I have no idea whether their success is more nurture than nature or the other way around. Who really knows? I can point to steps that my wife and I took (private schools for example) that gave them some advantage. But I can also remember certain personality characteristics exhibited by each of them at a very early age before we would have had much influence.
Church members like to give God the credit for the positives related to our children and then kind of conveniently leave him out of the equation when it comes to the negatives. Again, who knows?
Based on this thinking, is having octogenarians and nonagenerians be the chief decision makers in the LDS church, the best system? Is having bishops, SP,s and MPs serve for an exact time frame no matter what, the best way?
When eractic and unwise policies and decisions are made, the people are told to follow with exact obiedience and have faith no matter what.
Where are the checks and balances for such. Look at Putin, as an extreme case. Everyone has experienced an LDS leader who has made some decisions or made comments that created a What? / Where did that come from moment.
To Faith’s point, I have heard rumors of bawdy behavior by President Monson reported by some of his caregivers. Since it would be a HIPPA violation for caregivers to share this, its hard to know if credence to such rumors should be given, but I have enough lived experience with watching people go through dementia to know that loss of full frontal cortex function often leads to loss of the ability to keep control on our “darker angels.” So if the rumors were true, I wouldn’t use that as evidence that TSM was really a vile sinner , but rather applaud him that throughout most of his life he had been successful at keeping that part of his nature under control, recognizing that with damage to executive function he no longer could.
But at the same time, it would point to the dangers of not having any equivalent to a 25th amendment for disability of the chief executive. We definitely need it. I would also suggest automatic emeritus status for all GAs at 75.
“So if the rumors were true, I wouldn’t use that as evidence that TSM was really a vile sinner , but rather applaud him that throughout most of his life he had been successful at keeping that part of his nature under control, recognizing that with damage to executive function he no longer could.”
Thank you for that observation, 10ac. I will keep that in mind and I hope it helps me think more charitably about some people from this point forward.
In light of the Uvalde Massacre, this post is particularly apt. Very well-thought-out, with helpful comments. Thank you. The quote from Whitman‘s letter is particularly wrenching.
My wife served as an operating room nurse for several years. She told me that the operating teams would hear a lot of weird stuff, as the patient emerged from the anesthetic: bawdy, goofy, mean, perverted, just plain bad. The medical staff had to learn to be very non-judgmental, especially since the patients were almost always very nice people:
God gives us brains, wonderful machines. But there are murky depths in the brain of even the best person. Sometimes those hidden canyons come screaming up to the surface, with awful results.
There’s an article on Vox right now about Liberia’s experiment with trying to reduce violent crime by giving men in at-risk categories money and therapy. It was stunningly effective. I can’t link to it without getting this comment caught in the spam filter, but if you got to vox dot com, the title is: A study gave cash and therapy to men at risk of criminal behavior. 10 years later, the results are in.
I’ll paste in a few paragraphs, and you can go find the article if you want to hear about the results of running a similar program in Chicago:
Blattman, an economist at the University of Chicago, never intended to conduct this study. But in 2009, he was hanging out with an acquaintance in Liberia named Johnson Borh, who showed him around the capital city of Monrovia. Since Blattman studies crime and violence, Borh took him to visit the pickpockets, drug sellers, and others living on the margins of society.
Along the way, they kept running into guys who were sitting on street corners, eking out a meager living by shining shoes or selling clothes. When these men spotted Borh, they’d run to give him a hug. Blattman recalls that when he asked the men how they knew Borh, they’d say something like, “I used to be like them,” and point to the nearby pickpockets or drug sellers. “But then I went through Borh’s program.”
That’s how Blattman learned about the program Borh had been running for 15 years: Sustainable Transformation of Youth in Liberia. It offered men who were at high risk for violent crime eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT, as it’s called, is a popular, evidence-based method of dealing with issues like anxiety, but Borh adapted the therapeutic strategy to deal with issues like violence and crime.
Meeting with a counselor in groups of around 20, the men would practice specific behavioral changes, like managing anger and exerting self-control. They’d also rehearse trying on a new identity unconnected to their past behavior, by changing their clothes and haircuts and working to reintegrate themselves into mainstream society through community sports, banks, and more.
—–End article excerpt.
I doubt any of us would argue that all of our actions are 100% biological. Biology certainly plays a role, and nearly takes over in certain circumstances like dementia or brain injuries and etc. We ought to hold people compassionately accountable – assume they’re doing the best they can until we’re proven otherwise. There are people who know better, and could do better, and who choose to be mean and vicious. Other people maybe can’t. Either way, I don’t feel obligated to stick around when someone’s behavior is affecting me badly, whether they can control it or not. Exception for my son, and we did find reasons for his behavior and learned how to address them with both therapy and medication. He’s never going to be entirely normal, but we’ve been able to cut way down on the behaviors that were harming the people he lived with.
This reminds me of some posts I did quite a few years back. One on Free Will https://wheatandtares.org/2017/09/01/free-will/ and a follow up one https://wheatandtares.org/2017/09/08/follow-up-to-free-will-post/ Since creating those two posts I have come across a few findings that are similar. I wonder if pre-nuptial genetic testing will become a thing in the future: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/opinion/sunday/infidelity-lurks-in-your-genes.html
Sounds like the determinism vs. free will debate. I think our actions are mostly determined. Our behavior mostly caused. We are mostly acted upon and not the ones doing the acting. Still, to some degree we can control what we do or don’t do, make independent choices and decisions, and focus our thoughts and actions. On the criminal arguing that his brain made him do it, you can also argue that the brains of those in the legal system are making them force the suspect to stand trial, the brains of the jury are making them reach a guilty verdict, and the brain of the judge is making the judge issue a sentence. Legal systems are the products of determining factors. All cultures have norms and rules which determine right and wrong actions. Some of these norms get written down as laws which societies seek through governing bodies and leading figures in their respective cultures to enforce. It has always been the nature of human cultures to do so.
I like the post and all the comments so far. Thanks.
I believe that there are forces that are constantly acting on us and pushing our behavior one way or another. Some of those forces are our brain/body (there are many others).
One analogy that I really like is comparing your brain/body to a horse, and your soul as a rider. The horse does most of the work and can do a lot of things by itself with no rider. The rider is there to steer the horse in the direction it wants to go. If you let the horse make all of the decisions, then it will take you for a ride (and often to a good place), but it might not take you exactly where you want to go.
In day to day living, I think that’s part of the test “Are you going to let your brain control your decisions, or are you going to let your spirit control your decisions?” To me, they clearly need to work together. But I think in rare circumstances (like a tumor), your brain can completely take control of you (The horse is going for a ride and there’s nothing the rider can do to stop it).
Something that I believe is “You are not your brain.” And I think one of our purposes here is to “grow and develop” our Spirits. Just like muscles grow when they push against a force, I think our Spirits grow as they push against the forces that are acting on them. Being deliberate about choosing which forces you are going to push against can help you grow your Spirit in a way that you deliberately choose.
The more I learn about the brain, the more it seems to me that agency/free will doesn’t exist, or if it does, our capacity to exercise it is far less than we realize. For many years (even when I was a TBM) I have believed that the only thing that makes sense is universal salvation.
This is the way.