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Mindful : December 2013
32 mindful December 2013 months he began obsess- ing about underage girls again. A scan revealed that bits of tissue missed in the first operation had again g rown into a sizeable tumor. Surgery once again restored him to “normal.” This seems like a simple bra in—and nothing-but- bra in—explanation. Now imag ine a 29-year- old unemployed college graduate living with his parents who lies in bed much of the day texting friends, playing video games, a nd checking Facebook. When his fed-up father asks when he plans to look for a job, he says his doctor just gave him bad news: he has a brain aneurysm that has induced lethargy, depression, and an inability to plan, think clearly, and otherwise get his act together. But if surgeons can fix the aneurysm, the son says, he’s sure he’ll turn his life a round. But what if the son just answers: I don’t feel like it. Does that ma ke you feel differently about him? Most people cut the young man more slack when he has an aneurysm than when he just doesn’t feel like looking for a job. That ’s because when it comes to hijacking our f ree will, we find brain-based explanations—which a re physical, specific, and visible (if one opens up the skull of the lazy son or pedophile stepfather)—more persuasive tha n nebulous mind-based explanations. In numerous studies, respondents say that people are more responsible for their psychological states tha n for their neurological states. Most absolve some- one of responsibility if their choices seem to be dictated by a physical entity such as a tumor or aneurysm. They are less willing, however, to absolve someone of responsi- bility if their actions are the result of a psychological state, such as lack of motivation or poor executive function. But the cause of every behavior lies in the brain, even if that cause (an aberra nt pattern of activity, a glitch in the wiring) is not as obvious as a tumor. The brain, after all, is the organ of behavior, just as the pancreas is the organ of insulin production. If we think about psy- chology differently from neurology, the obvious question arises: what’s going to happen as more and more of what used to be considered psychology is explained in terms of electrical circuits and chemical constituents—in short, as neurobiology? How will we then view what our fellow humans, and we our- selves, do? Some clues come from experiments at the University of North Carolina, where phi- losophers presented lazy-son- type scenarios to hundreds of volunteers. In one version, a middle- aged man was said to have consta nt sexual thoughts about prepubescent boys and frequently watched through the window as a 13-year- old neighbor showered. Researchers told the vol- unteers he did this because he had Huebner ’s delirium, a psychological condition marked by “excessive psy- chomachinations,” or because he had hermatosomes, a neurological disease in which Make no mistake: scientists are pinning down the mechanisms for more and more of what we think, feel, and do.