Getting the love right

So we come to the last column in this little series on neuroscience. Of course we will return to this subject from time to time. After all, the 21st century has been called the century of the brain. But a couple of questions need to be addressed. The first concerns the extent to which our choices are influenced by factors of which we may only be dimly aware.

During the series we have seen that there are a number of sources for this influence. The most immediately accessible is the strategy used by our brains. It works by habitualising past experience, and only bringing attention to bear on new experiences. This means that, while our brain is very efficient, many of its conclusions are not under conscious control.

A second source is the influence of our nurture. This can range from, say, the conditions we experienced in the womb to later occasions which may influence us still, but some of which we don’t remember.

We may have some clues to our influence from genes by looking at our close relations but, for the most part, we have no means of knowing. An important subsection here is the primitive responses we receive from our ancestors. I have in mind such factors as fear of heights or our instinctive recognition that it is safer to run with the herd.

We may hope that a greater awareness of such influences will save us from being guided in wrong directions. We can do little when we are unaware. But there is much information to be had from psychologists who have carried out numerous studies of human nature in general, and over many years. A couple of trivial examples might be our ready stereotyping of people by their accent, or the importance of physical attractiveness for attracting both votes and credibility. Knowing such things at least helps us to be on our guard.

I do not know what precise weight we should give to the often quoted verdict that 95 per cent of our mental activity is not under our control, although any way of reducing the percentage would be welcome. But the second question concerns our degree of moral freedom. The message of neuroscience – that we are much less free than we tend to believe – is clear. Many neuroscientists go further: they tell us that all choices that we think we make are in fact determined. We simply have no freedom whatsoever.

A representative example comes from Wolf Singer, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, who was chosen by the Royal Society to describe this view. He tells us that all the higher functions, such as those we associate with the immaterial aspects of the soul, are controlled by the brain. “It follows from this view that mental phenomena are the consequence and not the cause of neuronal interactions.” He accepts that the law must continue to act in order to protect the public but nevertheless “there must have been a neuronal cause for the deviant behaviour whatever its exact nature”.

Singer does not explain why we should accept his views since, by his own statement, these are determined by a long chain of, mainly, arational causes, and thus can have no claim to truth. I prefer the statement of a much greater scientist, Erwin Schrödinger, who wrote: “My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the laws of nature, yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions… in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.”

I accept this honest paradox. And, although I have written about this before, it may do no harm if I describe again the solution as I see it. I take the view that, at the time of our choice, we may have no way of assessing its freedom. It may be free, partly free, or determined by its causal antecedents. But, even in determined cases, we are normally responsible.

We are responsible because we are responsible for the sort of person we have become. Our vocation is not to do this or to avoid doing that. It is quite simply to conform ourselves to Christ. How we behave – the choices we make – are the dividends of the sort of person we have chosen to become. At the moment that I snap at my wife (and, believe me, it happens) I may not be free. But I was free to cultivate my love, and to curb my unloving habits, so that such an offence would be less likely – and I failed to do so.

When Christ tells us how we should be, he gives us the Sermon on the Mount. When Paul does so, he speaks directly of the nature of charity. St John (I am told) was reduced in his senility to one phrase: “Little children, love one another.” They all tell us that if we get the love right, everything else clicks into place. So it’s back to the virtues. Aquinas tells us straightforwardly: “Virtue is a habit by which we live righteously.” And, in looking at neuroscience, we have seen that our brains are adapted to cultivate habit. God has given us the biological and spiritual equipment to develop the habits of faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. And thus our choices, whether free or not at the time that we make them, are the product of the habits through which we live righteously.

Link to Royal Society paper (section 2.4 applies)

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Neuroscience. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Getting the love right

  1. Horace says:

    There is a recent case relevant to this post.

    Hannah Bonser, 26, stabbed a thirteen-year-old in a random attack in Elmfield Park, Doncaster, South Yorkshire, on Valentine’s Day.
    She had been known to the mental health services for about 10 years and had been temporarily held in mental hospitals at least three times.
    She had complained of ‘hearing voices’ at the age of 17.

    The defence case was that she was a paranoid schizophrenic. A jury at Sheffield Crown Court rejected the claim that she was guilty only of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility. She was given a life sentence.

    I find this extraordinary – especially because when I was a medical student (in the late 1940’s) my grandfather, who was Chief Superintendent of the local Asylum (nowadays such places are rare and called ‘Mental Hospitals’) told me never to have any worries about dealing with mentally disturbed patients unless they were hearing voices “because if the voice tells them to do something [such as to attack you] they will do it immediately, efficiently and without the slightest warning”!

    An explanation of the jury’s verdict might perhaps be the attitude summarised by Quentin in the sentence “We are responsible because we are responsible for the sort of person we have become. “

  2. claret says:

    My son hears voices and unbenown to me even heard them as a child. At that time he thought it normal and that everyone heard voices. He is now in his forties and has never attacked anyone.
    Of course the voices may have never told him to attack anyone but he is more likely to harm himself than anyone else. Perhaps your grandfather was speaking without the benefit of modern knowledge.
    This particular court case will have hinged on medical evidence and the prosecution will have had some evidence to present to the jury that convinced them of the defendant’s intent.
    It is risky to pass judgement without hearing the full evidence.

  3. Iona says:

    I’m sure I have read (but can’t give chapter and verse) that many people hear voices, but usually keep quiet about it in case others think they’re mad. They function quite normally. (The people. Not the voices).

    • Horace says:

      A reasonable reference for ‘hearing voices’ – the modern view, ie. that it is not particularly abnormal – is the Mental Health Foundation (search for ‘hearing voices’ )

      However, it is not just ‘hearing voices’ but individuals who are mentally disturbed AND hear voices that was my grandfather’s point.

      The question of ‘hearing voices’ is only marginally relevant in this case.
      I have not read anything that suggests that Hannah was told by voices to make this apparently totally unreasonable attack and in any event it would be almost impossible to prove (or disprove) such a suggestion.

      I am surprised though that a plea of ‘diminished responsibility’ was rejected.

  4. Mike Horsnall says:

    Here are a few lines from the mentalhealth link Horace supplies us with:

    “…It is also common for people to hear voices as if they are thoughts entering their mind from somewhere outside themselves. This is not the same as a suddenly inspired idea, which people usually recognise as coming from themselves. These thoughts are not their own and would seem to come from outside their own consciousness, like telepathy.

    A good example of this is the experience of recalling a rhyme or tune, which you find yourself repeating unconsciously under your breath and which keeps going through your head again and again. You can even find yourself humming it. You never took a decision to start thinking of it and it’s difficult to stop thinking about it.

    The difference between the tune in your head and a ‘voice thought’ that appears as words in your mind is that the voice may go on to speak coherently to you and even engage you in conversation. You yourself are not responsible for it and you have no idea what this voice is going to say next.

    There are many different ways to hear voices. Voices can be experienced in the head, from outside the head or even in the body. It may be one voice or many voices. The voice may talk to you or about you.

    There are other ways to hear voices. Some people experience non-verbal thoughts, images and visions, tastes, smells and touch – all with no physical cause and all sensations that they didn’t call into being themselves.

    Voices can be like dreams. We all dream and experience words, images and even sensations. When we are bored we can drift off and have a day dream. When we dream all sorts of strange things can happen to us, but we still believe they’re really happening to us. Hearing voices can be like that – a waking dream that is experienced as real.”

    This seems to me cogent and well written. I’ve been interested in this subject for years from a christian perspective-a glance at the bible tells us God speaks by voices and the Charismatic/Pentacostal circuit is littered with prophets, preachers and teachers who profess to ‘hear’ from God. So ,in the early days of my christian life I iused to wonder if those stray voice like thoughts I am prone to were anything to do with God or not.. This preoccupation is not as unusual as it sounds, when you think about it a large part of Ignatian spiritual discipline is to do with the discerning of Gods’voice’ and determining the real from the illusory. I’ve also had opportunity to converse with numbers of individuals whose communications from ‘God’ were clearly a result of them not taking their medication. I seem to think mainly in words or feelings so it doesnt surprise me that there are often ‘voice thoughts’ going on in my mind-but I never hear voices as described above-in the sense of being conversed with by a voice I cannot predict.

  5. Peter Nyikos says:

    I often “hear voices” when starting to drift off to sleep, yet I am still awake. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some people are able to “hear voices” even when apparently awake, yet not be influenced by the voices because they know there is no separate intelligent entity behind the voices.

    When I was younger (especially in my late teens and twenties) I could close my eyes and very vivid pictures would come while I was fully awake. Some were like modern art, some were like the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, some were ordinary scenes, both still and with action, one scene following a dissimilar one.

    Nowadays (I am 66) it is much harder to experience them; I have to disengage my will and not try to encourage the “visions”.

    • John Candido says:

      As a teenager, and even younger, I was able to shut my eyes while in bed and before going to sleep, and ‘see’ fabulous patterns full of colour. I have not seen the need to repeat such experiences since, and I am not sure if I could repeat them at all. I do not know what this ability or faculty means, if it could be called a faculty, or how it can be put to practical use. I am not artistically inclined so I do not think it is indicative to art. I have a little musical ability, but I do not think that this pattern generation is indicative of music. It is just one of those things that probably cannot be explained I suppose. Can someone explain this observation?

      • Quentin says:

        I have, and retain, the habit of seeing colours when looking through closed eyes. I can do this during the day, but it’s clearest when I shut my eyes to go to sleep. Because I have always assumed that this happens to everyone I have regarded it as normal.

        The best search engine term I have found is ‘closed eye hallucination’. Though much of this is about drugs. And there is plenty on ‘hearing voices’. Worth noting that it is now possible, through scans, to detect whether ‘imaginary voices’ are detectable in the auditory cortex.

  6. Iona says:

    Some people (I am one of them) see images as they are drifting off to sleep. These are called hypnagogic images (or maybe hypnogogic?). Typically they are of things seen from odd angles, such as looking up at someone’s face from below. The “odd angle” may be the visual system interpreting the image with reference to one’s lying-down position.

  7. mike Horsnall says:

    Nice to know what a reassuringly odd bunch we all are!

    • mike Horsnall says:

      Reminds me of that famous line from an old David Bowie song:
      “I will sit me down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision..”

  8. Nektarios says:

    Fellow bloggers
    Though I have been keeping tabs on the blog, I was until now, just too busy to write any postings.
    Getting Love right is a dire necessity. But there is a another fact concerning humanity, and that is, we don’t love each other.
    It is an odd love to train a child up to go into the forces to kill or be killed. We get bombarded with the propaganda, and it is propaganda, those that get killed for the whims of the State are paying the ultimate price, that is, one of love for ones country.
    How can a mother truly love her child, just to see him in uniform and marching off to battle and may never return?
    Is it loving, to train our children to be independent, assertive and highly competitive, this pits one against another and is ultimately a recipe for war.
    Is it loving, the way we do business, the profit and the greed of bankers we have seen demonstrated in recent days.
    Is it loving, while inflation is coming down, that supermarket chains want to pay even less for milk to the farmer, to the point where the farmer cannot even make a living from it?
    Is it loving, in our materialism, and proflicate use of resources, means millions are being given a pitance living on less than a dollar a day?
    Is it loving, where corruption in State and religious institutions is at record levels globally?
    Is it loving, in over the last 36 years or so,the State has seen fit to sanction the abortion of over 9 million would be babies just her in the UK?
    Is it loving, Christian, that whatever church one is in, judging and condemning of others is at epidemic levels?
    One could go on and on, but the point being raised here is, we do not love one another.

    Having reduced Love to sentimentality, emotionalism, sexual pleasure and all that, you know it all don’t you, which inwardly is, love of Self, and as Self, is a construction of thought, therefore that love is not real but a fiction, a fantasy and an illusion.
    We may if time allows, get into the whole issue of the brain and it’s workings. The assertions of the neuroscientists are limited to experiment, the repetitive and the mechanical aspecs of the brain,
    which in it’s complexity we scarcely understand, but the brain is much more than that, capable of much more than it is used for, and we use it wrongly, assault it, damage it, stress it, until there is mental breakdown or partial breakdown.
    No, we do not understand the workings of the brain as we ought, and we are certainly not loving towards it ,or the brains of others.
    Perhaps you would like to go into it in depth. For example did you not know that the computations going on within the brain to form it and cause it to function, are billions of computations a millisecond, way beyond science, and putting all your super-computers working together in harmony could not do as many computations. We have not loved ourselves as we ought, because we have not known ourselves as we ought, understood as we ought. so keep making the same mistakes repetitively. Yes, let’s get the love aspect, right.

  9. Nektarios says:

    Fellow bloggers

    How are we do get the Love aspect right? What effect does this have on the brain?
    How are we to get the Love aspect right?
    I am sure we all agree God is Love, yes? Are we all agreed God loves ourself, our whole being,
    yes? Are we all agreed that God who is, sent us into this world and He is always with us? Yes?
    The this would mean, God who is Love, inhabits all eternity, inhabits us at a deep level of our being too.
    From what I said in my last posting, Love of God in us is not understood, and so we have not truly understood ourselves.
    We live lives in contradiction, sorrow, fear,pain, misery and distress. We often blame God for this,but it is not God that is to blame, but our inclinations and desires and conditioning most of which invents a god that is imaginary, non-existent, extentions of ourselves. This is what Self does.
    But capture this if you can, the direct oppisite is the truth. One does not have to invent a god when God who is Love, from whom we came dwells in us and with us.
    Simple you say, you are not telling us anything we did not know? We it is obvious from what I said in my last posting, we do not love each other, therefore, by implication, we do not love God that is either or know Him, that’s why we invent gods and we do.
    Now capture this if you can. It is not us loving God that interests God so much, but that we allow Him to fill us with His Love.
    To do that, we have to be aware that He is there, always there.
    Here is the beginning of relationship with God in Christ , in Love.
    This is a living dynamic and active relationship.
    Entering into that relationship with God, who dwells within us, we become awre that we are at one with God, with man and all that God has made.
    When I was a young Christian, a phrase banded about it those days was, Let go and let God.
    The various church institutions did not like it at all, and it took me a long time to figure out why.
    It is simple this, they cannot give the Love of God, only God can do that. They in turn wanted to control, indoctrinate and rule over you – but not in the Love of God.
    It has lead to many divisions in the Church – loveless, now for decades they have been working on Church unity and ecumenism – which is ridiculous when you consider, that such unity exists only in the Love of God. So ecclesiastic unity is an attempt by those in power to mimic the love of God – how petty and silly can one get?

    What effect getting this love right have on the brain?
    It brings that which is in disorder into order, God’s order.
    In that order the brain functions as God intnded it to. It is alert, attentive and receiving all the time.
    The brain operates more intelligently. It turns away from that which is contrary to the Love of God.
    The brain becomes meditative or contemplative as well as active. And the brain is not stressed,
    or damaged by our actions if we remain in the love of God… I will stop here for now.

  10. Nektarios says:

    sorry about so many errors but it is very late.
    Hope it is readable for you. – apologies.

  11. Iona says:

    Nektarios – going back to the first of your three posts above, it may break a mother’s heart to see her son in uniform and marching off to battle but if he feels he is doing what he must do, her love for him has to give way to that choice he has made. It doesn’t have to be sons, uniforms and battles, either. Both sons and daughters march off into all sorts of risky situations, and you have to let them.
    (Every maternity ward should have the words “and a sword shall pierce your heart also” written up above the door)

    • Nektarios says:

      This is the way it is nowadays, But don’t call it love, it isn’t, nor is it getting love right.
      What I sought to lay before us all was, how we don’t love each other.
      Love is right thinking, with right action, at the right time, not sentiment or emotion or romance and all that stuff.

      I am sure, Iona, though in your last sentence, ” and a sword shall piece your heart also”,
      refers to the Holy Mother Mary, but many a mother, millions of them, could with tears say
      such a phrase. I have met many over the years.

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