A Hairy Shirt? Where Neurology and Anthropology Intersect

A brief article in Discover (September 2009) caught my attention.  “Seven Deadly Sins” is a piece written by Kathleen McGowan.* In the article she takes seven sins (lust, gluttony, sloth, pride, greed, envy, and wrath) and provides neuroimaging of brain activity when people engage in these iniquities.  Her findings are compiled from multiple studies.  Here is a summary of what she provides under each morally morose activity.    

Lust.  “The most notable thing about lust is that it sets nearly the whole brain buzzing.”  Many men will say, I look but don’t touch.  Well, “watching erotic stimuli” “stimulates the reward processing ventral striatum.”  In other words, “just” looking at someone with lust provides a physical “reward.” 

Biblical analysis: Matthew 5:28 “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (ESV).

Gluttony.  Scientists observed that “obesity and drug addiction alter the same brain circuits.”  “In their studies, Wang and Volkow found that both drug addicts and obese people are usually less sensitive to dopamine’s rewarding effects.  Being relatively numb to the pleasure and motivation signal may make them more likely to chase after a stronger thrill: more food or a bump of cocaine.”

Biblical analysis: Philippians 3:19, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (ESV).

Sloth.  Sloth is viewed as a symptom of a disorder.  “Today, paralyzing lassitude is often seen as a symptom of a disease rather than of turpitude.  Apathy is a classic sign of fronto-temporal dementia.”  She adds, “Sadness and listlessness are also marks of major depression.”

Biblical analysis: Proverbs 26:14, “As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed” (ESV).

Pride.  “Righteous humility has traditionally been depicted as the virtue that opposes pride, but the work of Keenan and others calls that into question.  He is using TMS [transcranial magnetic stimulation~] to disrupt deliberate self-deprecating—the type of unctuous, ingratiating behavior that seems humble but is actually arrogance in disguise.”  In other words, pride and false humility are equally wretched.  The difference is that pride is overt while false humility is covert. 

Biblical analysis: James 4:6, “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (ESV).

Greed.  The research on this vice was based more on those who feel cheated.  “In the lab, researchers frequently use the ‘ultimatum game’ to test our responses to injustice.  One of two partners is given a sum of money and told that he must offer some amount of his own choosing to his partner.  If the partner rejects the offer, neither gets to keep any of the money.  On a rational basis, the receiving partner should accept any nonzero offer, since getting some money is better than getting none.  But people’s sense of violation at unfairness is so strong that they reject offers of 20 percent or less about half the time.”  What they’ve discovered is the “brain weighing an emotional response (the urge to punish the guy who cheated you) against the logical response (the appeal of the cash).” 

Biblical analysis: Proverbs 15:27, “Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household, but he who hates bribes will live” (ESV).

Envy.  The findings on this iniquity were conducted by comparing three students: a superior student, an average student, and a loser student.  When the study volunteers read about the tremendous achievement of the superior student the brain reacts by setting off the “conflict-detecting” part of the brain.  “This same region is enlisted when feeling pain.”  This suggests that it’s a blow to our ego, emotionally painful as it were to hear of another’s success.  Conversely, the defeat of a rival brings pleasure (think of when your football team of choice defeats its archrival, especially when it’s a last second or come-from-behind win).

Biblical analysis: Exodus 20:17, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (ESV) and Proverbs 14:30, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (ESV).

Wrath.  They found that “much of the brain circuitry active during anger is very basic and very fast.”  In another study, they allowed people who had been provoked during an experiment to punish their antagonist with a blast of extremely annoying noise.  “While the subjects pondered how loud to set the volume, the doral striatum, part of the brain’s reward circuitry, lit up at the prospect of retaliation.  One of the scientists summarized this finding by observing, ‘We have this primitive brain that says “Do it! Do it!”  I’m sure this cost a lot of time and money to discover what we all know to be true—getting even feels good. 

Biblical analysis: Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (ESV).

I would like to offer three observations after reading this article, as well as some resources for further reading from a Biblical perspective. 

First, McGowan assumes evolution rather than creation and thus a Creator.  This is a glaring “grid” deficiency as she processes the information, but some of her statements really (and unwittingly) point to the image of God in man.  One example, “There is no sin center in the brain, no single node of fiendishness that we might be able to shut down with drugs or electrodes.  With the advent of modern imagining techniques that peer into the brain as it functions, though, we at least gain some perspectives on our bad habits.”  Translation: sin is not a physical problem.  Another instance is when she says that certain parts of our brain form “a conscious self-regulatory system.  This network provides us with the evolutionary unprecedented ability to control our own neural processing—a feat achieved by no other creature.”  So I understand her statement to mean that science has discovered that man is a moral creature, distinct from all other living things.  Hmmmm, is there an explanation for such a phenomenon?  How about the image of God in man!

Second, McGowan says, “New research is explaining where these behaviors come from.”  I disagree.  As fascinating as these studies are, it is important to note that these studies do not provide the source of sin, rather they provide the physical effects of sinful behavior.  In other words, they are finding that certain parts of the brain “light up” when people engage in certain behavior, but the “power source” remains physiologically veiled.  This is the fundamental deficiency in scientific research that attempts to find the source of sinful behavior.  I disagree with the premise that sinful activity is sourced in the brain per se.  I do not nor could I reasonably deny that some behaviors are influenced by physical problems.    The Puritans often inquired of depressed people if they were sleeping well or eating right.  But this is not the same as conceding that immoral activity is physiologically sourced and should be treated as a medical issue rather than a spiritual issue.  Sinful actions grow out of a depraved heart.  For any radical change to occur, it must begin with a change of heart, not psychotherapy, not a pill, etc. 

Third, what about the “hairy shirt” reference?  Toward the end of the article McGowan states, “Historically moralists have not paid much heed to the findings of science, and it’s safe to say that all the brain-scans in the world will not persuade modern theologians to recalculate the wages of sin.^  But they might want to pay heed to one recent finding from modern neuroimaging: It turns out that acting virtuously does not really require a hairy shirt.  In fact, research suggests it feels pretty good.”  So if virtue is such a pleasant activity, then why are we not more virtuous?  The answer: depravity.  Moral corruption squelches virtue (Ephesians 2:1-3).  This is another unwitting allusion to the moral make up of people made in the image of a Holy God and the real, lingering effects of original and actual sin.   

Finally, here are some recommended resources to get a biblical perspective on the connection between physical and spiritual dimensions of a person.

Lloyd-Jones, Martin.  Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1965.  Lloyd-Jones is a renowned preacher.  Before beginning pastoral ministry, he was a successful physician which allowed him to speak intelligibly to this subject.

MacArthur, John.  “Counseling and the Sinfulness of Humanity,” 98-115 in Introduction to Biblical Counseling (Dallas: Word), 1994.

Menninger, Karl.  Whatever Became of Sin? (New York: Hawthorn Books), 1973.  Written by a medical doctor, it is a dated but worthy read.  He argues that the notion of sin has disappeared in the medical and psychological communities.  As a result, personal accountability has all but vanished. 

Welch, Edward.  Blame it on the Brain (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), 1998.  A well-respected Christian counselor writes this well-researched book.  In it he challenges the primacy of and the move toward the premise that sin is primarily rooted in physiological phenomenon.

The Journal of Biblical Counseling Spring 2000 and Winter 2000 dedicated all of the articles to the subject of depression, including articles such as “Christian Doctors on Depression” and “Medical Treatments for Depressive Symptoms.”

*McGowan, Kathleen.  “Seven Deadly Sins,” Discover (September 2009), 48-52.

~ A process in which a magnetic field applied to the scalp temporarily scrambles the signal in small areas of the brain.

^ This is a subtle critique of theologians, and anyone else, who would disagree with the idea that these neuroimages explain the source, problem of, and imply a potential “cure” for sin.