The Latest Trend: Blaming Brain Science

Why do we see the biological basis of behavior as a threat to our core humanity, instead of a potential way to more deeply understand it?

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Julio Cortez / AP

Patricia Krentcil, 44, waits to be arraigned at the Essex County Superior Court, May 2, 2012 in Newark, N.J., where she appeared on charges of endangering her 5-year-old child by taking her into a tanning salon.

Is understanding human behavior as being driven, at least in part, by neurobiology, tantamount to “blaming the brain”? Does talk about genes, and brain structure and chemistry relieve us of personal responsibility for our actions, reinforcing a kind of hopeless fatalism, and allowing us such easy excuses for our bad behavior as – to borrow the headline from a New York Times opinion piece last weekend—“The Amygdala Made Me Do It”? It would certainly seem that way, judging from the frequency with which the idea that we live in a “diagnosis du jour” or “pill for every ill” culture is bandied about in conversations on What’s Wrong With Our Society.

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These questions pose themselves over and over again in so many of the stories that grab our attention these days. Is a nine-year-old who pushes a toddler into the deep end of a swimming pool because he’s curious to “see someone drown” mentally impaired or evil? Does the Octomom suffer from “compulsive hoarding disorder” or “breeding disorder” or narcissistic personality disorder – or is she just a freak? And what about Patricia Krentcil, the “tanorexic” New Jersey mom charged with child endangerment for allegedly bringing her five-year-old daughter into a tanning booth – is she crazy with a small “c” or a big “C”? Should a person like Mel Gibson be viewed as mentally ill or morally repugnant? What about Bernie Madoff, and the “psychopaths” of Wall Street?

These concerns, like so much in America today, are deeply politicized. For the right, brain-disorder-talk portends a dangerous de-centering of moral values, religious belief and free will as the most important drivers of human behavior. For the left, contemporary neuropsychology threatens to let society off the hook for its responsibility in generating the toxic relational, environmental and ideological influences believed to foster mental illness.

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And yet, worries about the devastating moral impact of seeing people’s actions in terms of the workings of their brains don’t tend to pose a big problem in the scientific community. That’s generally because, in the work of researchers exploring the ties between brain and behavior, the whole idea that there’s an either/or between biology and personal responsibility or between inborn neurochemistry and choice-driven action is a false dichotomy. Experts quoted in the New York Times Magazine’s much-discussed recent article, “Can You Call A 9-year Old A Psychopath?” said that psychopaths do show a consistent pattern of brain differences relative to the general population, and these differences are in large measure genetic. However, cautioned Dan Waschbusch, a researcher at Florida International University who specializes in the kinds of “callous-unemotional” children who are believed, according to the Times, to be extra-likely to grow up to be psychopaths, “physiology isn’t destiny.” Rather, a new understanding of brain differences in those who appear to lack a conscience might open up new pathways toward preventing them from victimizing others.

Recent research on the effects of toxic stress on early brain development has clearly argued for the societal necessity of counteracting problems that have essentially been written onto the brain with excellent early childhood education and social programs to bolster family security. The simple fact that with early intervention services fully ten percent of kids with severe autism improve to the point that they “outgrow” the most disabling aspects of their diagnosis puts to a lie the notion that being diagnosed with what’s now seen as a brain-based, largely genetic disorder is tantamount to a self-fulfilling prophecy of lifelong impairment. (In fact, it was traditional view of autistic children as suffering from the environmental toxin of a “refrigerator mother” that was the most fatalistic.)

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We ought to shift our perception of this moment in neuroscience, so that we don’t view the new research as a threat to our core humanity, but instead as a potential way to more deeply understand it – and more effectively and intelligently take responsibility for our actions. The truth is: getting beyond simplistic notions of “bad choices” could potentially open up a whole world of good.

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