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Mindful : December 2013
30 mindful December 2013 My Brain Made Me Do It As scientists learn more about how the structure of our brains affects our behavior, Sharon Begley asks: Are we responsible for our actions, or can we just blame our brains? Sharon Begley is the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Which do we respect more, the brain or the mind? That may seem like a silly question, since by all expert accounts the mind is just what the brain does. The mind is the output—in thoughts, emotions, memories, a nd desires—of the electrical and chemical activity of the 100 trillion or so synapses in the human brain. So the question is akin to asking which you value more: the cool air that your air conditioner puts out or the unit itself. (I am writing this on a 96-degree day; substitute “warmth” and “radiator” if you are reading this in winter.) The brain has been clean- ing the mind’s clock when it comes to explaining human behavior. And the mind falls further behind with every adva nce that neuroscience makes in understanding mental phenomena. So as bra in biology alone becomes a sufficient way to explain “mental” phenomena, we’ll increasingly face dilemmas that until now have been the province of philosophy more tha n science. For example, a few years ago, a middle-aged Virginia man began to amass child pornography and went on to molest his eight-year-old stepdaughter. Arrested and jailed before trial, he began complaining of headaches and vertigo. A brain scan showed a large tumor in the frontal area invading the hypothal- amus, a structure that reg- ulates sexual behavior. The man knew what he was doing was wrong, so he had what the law calls “intact capacity and moral knowledge.” But because of the tumor, doctors said, he could not inhibit his devia nt behavior. The tumor was removed, he was acquitted, and his sexual interests returned to normal. But within a few → mind/body Illustration by Malin Rosenqvist