I can’t stop thinking about Neuroskeptic’s post “You Are Your Brain, So Don’t Blame Your Brain,” which I read over a year ago. The idea that the brain is the cause and essence of all things human resonates with my research on growing neuro-centrism(s) in the past 150 years. Here’s a short overview of the debate that Neuroskeptic intervened in.
Dishonesty is an integral part of our social world, influencing domains ranging from finance and politics to personal relationships. Anecdotally, digressions from a moral code are often described as a series of small breaches that grow over time. Here we provide empirical evidence for a gradual escalation of self-serving dishonesty and reveal a neural mechanism supporting it. Behaviorally, we show that the extent to which participants engage in self-serving dishonesty increases with repetition. Using functional MRI, we show that signal reduction in the amygdala is sensitive to the history of dishonest behavior, consistent with adaptation. Critically, the extent of reduced amygdala sensitivity to dishonesty on a present decision relative to the previous one predicts the magnitude of escalation of self-serving dishonesty on the next decision. The findings uncover a biological mechanism that supports a ‘slippery slope’: what begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.
Then CNN took up the story. “Lying May Be Your Brain’s Fault, Honestly,” Jessica Ravitz suggested. Trying not to simplify too much, she gestured to the complexities of identifying brain mechanisms that underlie human behavior. Nevertheless, she arrived at simplistic comparisons that identify ‘biology’ as the cause for repeated human misbehavior:
Consider this: A cold pool feels unbearable at first, and then you adapt. A woman drenched in the perfume she’s worn for ages doesn’t notice the smell, but strangers recoil. Gruesome photographs are less difficult to look at the second, third, fourth time around.
Similarly, small lies can desensitize our brains to the negative feelings associated with lying, which opens the door to more significant lies. And the more often we’re dishonest about something, the easier it is to continue being dishonest.
With significantly more sensationalism, Simon Makin suggested on pbs.org that “Telling a Lie Makes Way for the Brain to Keep Lying” and connected this finding to dishonesty and fraud in politics and business. (Let’s be honest, Garrett et al.’s abstract made it really easy for science reporters to go down that rabbit hole of simplistic causal explanations.)
Wouldn’t we all prefer to live in a world as simple as this?
Nope. At least not Richard Gunderman. Only a week after the online publication of Garrett et al.’s paper, Gunderman explained to his readers “Why You Shouldn’t Blame Lying on the Brain.” In short, you shouldn’t because the brain is not a machine, and even if it were, the mind still wouldn’t be the same as the brain. This means that there is no inevitable mechanism through which an experience in the world ‘makes’ your brain fabricate a lie, let alone ‘makes’ you choose to tell this lie and repeat this pattern over and over again. Here’s Gunderman in his own words:
[L]ying is not the fault of the brain but [of] the person to whom the brain belongs. When someone tells a lie, he or she is not merely incorrect but deceptive. People who lie are deliberately distorting the truth and misleading someone in hopes of gain, placing their purposes above the understanding and trust of the person to whom they lie. … Lying is not a matter of physical law, but of moral injunction. It is less about chemistry than character.
This is why we abhor the deceptive conduct of narcissists, crooks and politicians, and why we esteem so highly the characters of people who manage to tell the truth even when it is especially inconvenient to do so. Such acts are morally blameworthy or exemplary precisely because we recognize them as the products of human choice, not physical necessity.
Less than a week later, Neuroskeptic intervened in the debate. Yes, Neuroskeptic suggested, you cannot blame your brain for lying. But Neuroskeptic’s rationale for this statement was diametrically opposed to Gunderman’s. Neuroskeptic firmly held on to the idea that the brain is a (very complex and not-yet understood) machine, and Neuroskeptic rejected any form of dualism.
“[E]very human thought and behaviour, good, bad or indifferent, happens in the brain,” Neuroskeptic wrote. (Really? I play soccer in my brain? No wonder I eat Aspirin like candy these days.)
[W]hereas Gunderman draws an opposition between ‘the brain’ and ‘the person to whom the brain belongs’, I don’t think there is one. And this is the point: if I am my brain, then I cannot shift responsibility from myself onto my brain – because my brain’s responsibility is my own. … It’s because there is no ‘person’ separate from the brain that we can’t blame our brains.
I get it. Neuroskeptic is a neuroscientist and is (despite the pseudonym) not skeptical at all about neuro-centrism. Maybe that comes with the job. But consider this: If, by virtue of their profession, neuroscientists believe that the brain is the person and that no mind exists, then I, by virtue of my profession, should believe that history is time and that no future exists.
Doesn’t that sound a bit simplistic?