I Didn't Sin—It Was My Brain

I Didn’t Sin—It Was My Brain Brain researchers have found the sources of many of our darkest thoughts, from envy to wrath.

by Kathleen McGowan; illustrations by Christopher Buzelli

From the September 2009 issue, published online October 5, 2009

This article talks about the research neuroscience has begun into such things as inhibitory cognitive control networks involving the front of the brain activate to squelch the impulse and other brain regions such as the caudate—partly responsible for body movement and coordination—suppress the physical impulse. These are interesting to follow, but as yet do not yet seem to have identified the solutions that many have already found in other modalities such as NLP.

Creator: Priamo della Quercia  Date: 1444-1452  Medium: manuscript illumination  Source: Yates Thompson 36. Reprinted with permission of the British Library.
Creator: Priamo della Quercia Date: 1444-1452 Medium: manuscript illumination Source: Yates Thompson 36. Reprinted with permission of the British Library.

More disagreeable forms of sin such as wrath and envy enlist the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC). This area, buried in the front of the brain, is often called the brain’s “conflict detector,” coming online when you are confronted with contradictory information, or even simply when you feel pain…. In the annals of sin, weaknesses of the flesh—lust, gluttony, sloth—are considered second-tier offenses, less odious than the “spiritual” sins of envy and pride. That’s good news for us, since these yearnings are notoriously difficult to suppress.

Why does being bad feel so good? Pride, envy, greed, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth: It might sound like just one more episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, but this enduring formulation of the worst of human failures has inspired great art for thousands of years. In the 14th century Dante depicted ghoulish evildoers suffering for eternity in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. Medieval muralists put the fear of God into churchgoers with lurid scenarios of demons and devils. More recently George Balanchine choreographed their dance.….

For most of us, it takes less mental energy to puff ourselves up than to think critically about our own abilities. In one recent neuroimaging study by Hidehiko Takahashi of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan, volunteers who imagined themselves winning a prize or trouncing an opponent showed less activation in brain regions associated with introspection and self-conscious thought than people induced to feel negative emotions such as embarrassment. We accept positive feedback about ourselves readily, Takahashi says: “Compared with guilt or embarrassment, pride might be processed more automatically.”

The most notable thing about lust is that it sets nearly the whole brain buzzing.

Pride gets its swagger from the self-related processing of the mPFC, which Keenan calls “a very interesting area of the brain, involved in all these wonderful human characteristics, from planning to abstract thinking to self-awareness.” Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), in which a magnetic field applied to the scalp temporarily scrambles the signal in small areas of the brain, he was able to briefly shut off the mPFC in volunteers. With TMS switched on, his subjects’ normal, healthy arrogance melted away. “They saw themselves as they really were, without glossing over negative characteristics,” he says….

It makes sense that we are so sensitive to being cheated, notes Matthew Lieberman, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Mammalian survival depends on social bonds, and fairness is a really important social cue,” he says. Inequitable treatment might be an important sign that we are not valued by the group, he says, so we had better pay attention.

In response to unfair offers, the brain activates the pain detection process that takes place in the multitasking dACC. Interestingly, it also engages the bilateral anterior insula, an area implicated in negative emotions such as anger, disgust, and social rejection. The picture that emerges from fMRI is that of a brain weighing an emotional response (the urge to punish the guy who cheated you) against a logical response (the appeal of the cash)….

See the full article at I Didn’t Sin—It Was My Brain from the Discover Magazine, Sep 2009


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