When I was in elementary school, one of my teachers (at my Christian school) told me that people who commit suicide immediately go to Hell because murder is a sin and the last thing they did was sin. This seemed really unfair to my young mind. People who killed themselves seemed really sad with no way out, and sending them to Hell seemed pretty uncaring for such a good God. I remember being pretty distressed by this and talking to my mom about it. One of the things I’ve always loved about my mom is that her answers have this uncanny way of being both incredibly simple and deeply profound. She told me that a healthy brain is unable to kill itself. If a person had gotten to the point where they were able to kill themselves then their brain was chemically unbalanced, and God who sees their chemicals would understand and have mercy on their poor, broken soul.
See? She’s wonderful.
I’ve been thinking a lot about brains recently. I did a presentation in my prophets class last night about psychosis and whether we can psychoanalyze the prophets. The short answer? No. Not very well. But let’s talk about brains for a minute here. Do you know how awesome your brain is? No? Let me enlighten you.
Your brain is thinking about things right now that you don’t even know about. Remember earlier when you couldn’t remember the name of that TV show you used to watch when you were a kid? Your brain is still processing that, and when it figures it out (probably right before you are about to fall asleep), you’ll know. Have you ever been hit by a sudden burst of creativity or came up with a brilliant solution to a problem seemingly out of thin air? While I’ll allow for the possibility that you were given a divine nudge, chances are, your subconscious had been working non-stop while your conscious mind was working on something else. At some point, the neural pathways were opened and you had that brilliant idea! That amazes me. Even when I’m not actively creating, my brain still is. It can’t help but create at all times no matter what. When I think about what it means to be created in the image of God, this is one of the things that stands out to me most. I’m only here because God can’t stop creating either. When I think about that, I imaging a little boy with a toy lawn mower following his dad around the yard imagining that he is just like his daddy. “Hey Dad! I made a blog post today! Isn’t it pretty? It looks just like you, doesn’t it?”
At this point in my fantasy, God puts my blog post on the refrigerator of Heaven and I continue drawing pictures of dinosaurs.
Back to the point…
There are documented cases of stroke victims suddenly discovering hidden musical or artistic talents that were in their brain all along but were only accessible when the rest of their brain was damaged. The brain has this wonderful way of compensating and improvising. We’re resilient creatures. Humans as a species are experts at survival. We’re also far too powerful for our own good, but that’s a post for another day.
What happens when the brain is broken, but the results are not pretty pictures? What happens when people are hurt because of it? Here’s an example. The right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ) is a part of your brain that is right above your right ear. This is the part of the brain that makes moral judgments. Using a powerful, focused electromagnet, scientists are able to turn this part of the brain off. First of all, can we all agree that this is awesome? The Egyptians thought so little of the brain that they used to throw it away when mummifying. The ancient Hebrew people didn’t even really have a word for the brain. Now we can use electromagnets to manipulate how people think! I love living in the future. Anyway, scientists from MIT took 30 people, presented them with fictional stories, and asked them to make moral judgements based on them. When the RTPJ was turned off, people made choices that they would have never made otherwise. So just by using magnets to stop the electrical impulses within a tiny part of the brain, normal people were turned into amoral monsters.
Now imagine that a person was born with a malformed RTPJ. This would be a person who would be physically unable to discern right from wrong. Plenty of sociopaths have experiences like this. They kill people and they feel no remorse. A classical understanding would be that they are pure evil, demon possessed, or human monsters. Are they? If a person is physically unable to do anything else, can we hold them accountable? That would be like calling a lion evil for killing its food or calling an earthquake evil. That’s crazy talk. When I’ve talked to people about this, the next question that inevitably arises is, “Where do you stop? Is anyone accountable or are we all just machines?”. Here’s my answer. Are you ready? I hope you are, because it’s a good one…
I don’t know.
It would seem that some people are born with bad brains that just can’t help it while other people are born with super-brains that want nothing more than to help people and better society. Other people seem to be somewhere in the middle. Maybe there is a spectrum of accountability. What I mean by that perhaps there is a spectrum along the brain-health continuum in which a person is able to comprehend the gravity of their actions and decide to act accordingly. The human brain is constantly rewiring itself and adapting to situations, so a person’s brain could conceivably move around the continuum. Maybe a traumatic event, drug use, or sickness could cause a brain to tip over to the wrong side of the scale. On the other hand, the touch of God, corrective therapy, or proper medication could bring a person back from the brink.
What does all this mean? I want to make two points here…
1.) Moral culpability is not as easy to discern as once thought. We can’t simply assume that someone who does evil things is intrinsically evil. That difficult person that you work with, the woman screaming on the subway, the crazy driver in front of you, or the latest murderer on the news might not be as “evil” as you once thought. There’s a chance that Hitler and Charles Manson couldn’t help what they did anymore than a fire can’t help but burn trees down. Evil is a choice. It can only happen when someone makes it happen. If you actually believe this, then you can’t help but become a more gracious person. It becomes exponentially easier to forgive people and turn the other cheek. You haven’t seen their brain scan. Don’t assume that their brain works as well as yours does.
2.) The God who wrote the digits of pi and who has counted the bacteria in your stomach knows your neurological state. This is the God who will ultimately judge you, and God knows better than anyone what you are working with. Are you struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, or some other chemical imbalance? God knows. Are you unable to discern moral judgments or figure out social situations? God knows. Are you constantly messing up and have lost hope in yourself? God knows. Regardless of whether your brain is ever healed, God knows. be comforted. God knows.