Monday, August 08, 2011

Talking to ourselves (Sunday Reflections for July 31, 2011)

“Why did I do that?” Not only do we all ask ourselves that question, we probably ask it more often than we care to admit. We also probably ask it more often than we even realize. Often the behavior in question is something trivial or just annoying but sometimes it is more serious. “I do not understand my own actions,” St Paul writes in Romans. It is an ancient problem, apparently.
If we think about it long enough, the frequency and apparent universality of this experience gets a little unnerving. “What do you MEAN you didn’t know what you were doing?” If you didn’t know what you were doing, just who is this you that we’re talking about? Is there more than one of you “in there?”
Thinking this way may give us a headache but the research of neuroscience increasingly supports the notion that yes, there is more than one of you “in there.” As reported on, neuroscientist David Eagleman describes this reality in his new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. According to Eagleman there are indeed many voices in our heads:
The only way to understand the brain is as a neural parliament, where you have different political parties battling it out to control your behavior. This can now be measured in the brain with neural imaging. We can see that there are all these competing subpopulations in the brain that are always battling it out. You can call this a "team of rivals," and I think that’s a much more nuanced view of ourselves. You can get a real understanding how it is you can argue with yourself and cajole yourself. When you stop to think about it, you might ask yourself, which "you" is you? It’s all you.
I think this gives us a much more nuanced view of others' behavior as well. We don’t have to fall into this simplistic path of asking, "What are this person’s true colors? Is this person a racist or not a racist?" For better or worse, it’s perfectly possible that there are racist parts of your brain and non-racist parts. You get a much better understanding when you understand that, as Walt Whitman correctly surmised, "I am large, I contain multitudes."
He had the spirit of that exactly right. Freud had a similar idea with the concepts of id, ego and superego. What’s different now is that we can actually measure and understand the processes going on under the hood.
In addition to questioning our own behavior we also question others’ behavior. “Why did they do that?” To this Eagleman says, they may have had “no choice.” Another discovery of neuroscience is that all brains are not created equal. Well of course we may say, but Eagleman is not just referring to mental ability or even personality.
Everyone’s brain is like a unique fingerprint. Every brain is the result of unique genetics and the social environment in which it developed. How we think, behave and react to situations and events is a function of our unique brain. You can probably see we are now teetering on the edge of that trickiest of subjects, human choice and free will. Eagleman doesn’t go down that road, however.
Free will is really about responsibility for our actions, whether to give credit or blame. From his study of the brain Eagleman thinks that’s kind of pointless because it doesn’t get us anywhere. The question rather is how do we encourage socially productive behavior and discourage anti-social behavior? When it comes to criminal behavior, the problem in Eagleman’s view is that we make few if any distinctions. The pathological criminal can only be taken out of society and “warehoused.” There’s nothing else we can do at this point. They are a small minority of the criminal population, however, yet most of the rest are treated the same way.
Nearly one-third of prison inmates are mentally ill and need treatment, though few get it. The criminal behavior of many others can be explained by unique factors for each person. They should be placed in rehabilitation programs that address those factors. Instead, most are lumped together often resulting in criminal and anti-social tendencies being cemented or even made worse.
Charging one’s opponent with “coddling criminals” or being “soft on crime” has become a standard campaign tactic. Yet there is little evidence that having created one of the largest prison populations in the world, our society is actually any safer or more just.
Conservative Christians often assume that the Bible requires us to classify people and their behavior as good or bad and that bad behavior must be punished. In fact, as the Paul quote above indicates, the Bible is actually very aware of the complications of judging, let alone understanding, human behavior.
While the Bible has a great deal to say about social injustice, criminal behavior and its punishment gets remarkably little attention. One could even say the Bible has a rather cynical attitude since nearly every one of its trial or prison stories is a case of abuse and injustice. At the end of Matthew, in the story of the separation of the sheep and goats, the true disciples are those who visited “the least of these” in prison.
Frustration and anger at criminal behavior is understandable but the evidence is mounting that our one-size-fits-all punishment system is accomplishing little and probably making things worse. The developments of neuroscience such as Eagleman reports give us reason to put our emotions aside to ask how we can actually deal with the problem of criminality in ways that would make our society better. While our own behavior or that of our neighbors may surprise us, it is actually becoming less of a mystery. There is profit for all of us in putting that knowledge to work.

No comments: