When neuroscience discovered hardness of heart

Does lying become easier with practice?

Common sense and experience say, “Of course,” and now some neuroscience researchers agree with that assessment. In Aeon, Neil Garrett of Princeton describes how he and three other researchers tested a group of people to see whether and how they could be acclimated to dishonesty. Here’s how the study worked:

“We had participants lie in an fMRI scanner and send messages to a second person, who sat outside the scanner, by entering keyboard responses. Participants were instructed that their responses would be relayed via connected computers. In some stages of the task, participants had repeated opportunities to make their messages dishonest in order to earn additional money. Importantly, they could be as dishonest as they wanted to – it was entirely up to them and could vary from message to message. This allowed us to see if the messages were equally dishonest, or if there was a change in people’s willingness to be dishonest over time.”

They discovered, as expected, that people initially had a strong emotional and neurological response to lying; but as they continued to lie, they felt less and less of a physical emotional response (flushed cheeks, racing heart) and, accordingly, their brains’ amygdalae responded less and less.

The study is especially interesting because the participants’ brains were reacting not to conditions outside their control, but to their own free choices. So, yes: Lying gets easier with practice.

It’s hard to know what to say about a study like this, other than, “Well, duh.” We’ve all seen this phenomenon. The first time we do something wrong, it feels wrong, and it feels bad. The second time we do it, it doesn’t feel great, but there’s less of a hurdle. The third and fourth time, it becomes even easier and less troubling. And eventually, with practice, we can barely remember why we thought the behavior was wrong in the first place, much less muster up any enthusiasm for quitting it – especially if we think we’re getting away with it. As any alert human knows, consciences are shallow wells, and run dry quickly if they’re not replenished.

The Church already has a word for this phenomenon, even if she hasn’t specified which region of the brain does the legwork. It’s called “hardness of heart,” which leads to vice, or a habit of sin, and it first rears its head in Genesis. It’s only a few chapters from Eden to the Flood. Vice is very efficient. Sin clears the way for more and more sin to roll through on more and more level ground.

Not only does sin become easier, but it becomes easier to commit worse sins. The researcher in the “dishonesty” experiment noted that, after a few repetitions of dishonesty,

“eventually, the door flew open: they could be much more dishonest than at the beginning, but with increasingly limited emotional sensitivity.”

And the Catechism nods gravely:

 

“Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin.”

The author in the study says,

“This study might suggest a pessimistic view of humanity, with everyone gradually becoming emotionally null to bad behavior, more corrupt and more egotistical. But that’s not the only way to see these results. One positive message to take away is that emotion plays a crucial role in constraining dishonesty. Perhaps that means a solution to dishonesty is available: strong emotional responses in situations where dishonesty is a temptation could be reinstated so as to reduce one’s susceptibility to it.”

I don’t mean to be rude; but again, I say unto you: DUH. The Church is way ahead on this one, too. Why do you suppose we confess our sins out loud to a priest? It’s not because the Church wants to humiliate or discourage the penitent, but because she is well aware that strong emotional responses reduce one’s susceptibility to temptation. It grabs our attention when we have to kneel in a little box and croak out loud, “I hit my little sister” or “I masturbated to porn” or “I stole five dollars from the cash register.” It reignites that healthy, desirable emotion of shame and revulsion, which makes it easier to resist doing those things again.

(Of course confession also offers forgiveness and grace, which strengthen our souls and reunite us with God! But I’m speaking here only of the psychological effect of confession, as it’s intended to work.)

The researcher continues:

“There have also been a number of behavioral interventions proposed to curb unethical behavior. These include using cues that emphasize morality and encouraging self-engagement. We don’t currently know the underlying neural mechanisms that can account for the positive behavioral changes these interventions drive. But an intriguing possibility is that they operate in part by shifting up our emotional reaction to situations in which dishonesty is an option, in turn helping us to resist the temptation to which we have become less resistant over time.”

He is right again. “Cues that emphasize morality and encourag[e] self-engagement” are, for Catholics, things like reading the Bible, praying sincerely to God and the saints, doing penance, spending time with other Catholics who share your values, talking and reading about the Faith, receiving the sacraments regularly, and actively and consciously pursuing virtue, rather than just trying to avoid sin. These behaviors are all “cues” that bolster that emotional/neurological response, making it easier for us to be honest rather than dishonest.

Now, we can approach these actions as “positive behavioral changes” which we hope will stimulate emotional responses which will, in turn, engage certain areas of our brains, making it easier for us to do what we perceive as moral. But the question is, Why? Why go to all that trouble to manipulate your own brain?

You could say that it’s an evolutionary imperative, something we do because society rewards us for behaving in ways that are sometimes mutually and directly beneficial to those involved, and sometimes beneficial to the survival of the species.

Or, you could say that our eternal Father created us to love him and serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next, and that his Son gave us the Church and the sacraments to help us find our way back home, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The two realities, neurological and spiritual, do not oppose or negate each other. When we discover how our brains actually function in response to the world, this is not proof that there is no soul, or no such thing as objective morality. But recall the scene in C S Lewis’ The Dawn Treader, where Eustace (converted, but still habituated to certain patterns of thinking) says,

“In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas,” and Ramandu responds, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

Practice habituates us to sin, deadens our consciences, reduces our horror of evil, accustoms us to vice – or, if you like, neurally adapts us, making us less sensitive to stimuli after repeated exposure. Either way, thank God we have the sacramental means to fight back.

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Image by pramit marattha from Pixabay
This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in The Catholic Weekly in 2017

Bless me, Father, for I have neurally adapted

They discovered, as expected, that people initially had a strong emotional and neurological response to lying; but as they continued to lie, they felt less and less emotional response (flushed cheeks, racing heart) and, accordingly, their brains’ amygdalae responded less and less.

The study is especially interesting because the participants’ brains were reacting not to conditions outside their control, but to their own free choices. So, yes: Lying gets easier with practice.

It’s hard to know what to say about a study like this, other than, “Well, duh.” The Church already has a word for this phenomenon — and a cure, as well.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Stone Man by Gilgongo via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Pro-life Even at the End of Life: What the Catholic Church Teaches about Care for the Dying

End_of_life_(2967585466)

The Catholic Church has a consistent, compassionate approach to end-of-life issues, but many Catholics don’t know what the Church actually teaches. As a result, doctors, hospice care workers, and the guardians of patients in distress are branded “murderers” even when they’re doing their best to care for the sick and dying in a loving, responsible, and ethical way. 

I wrote this article for Catholic Digest in 2013.  I’m reprinting it today in light of recent conversationg surrounding Baby Jake and the court’s decisions about his future medical care.

Pro-Life Even at the End of Life

“Technology runs amok without ethics,” says Tammy Ruiz, a Catholic nurse who provides end-of-life care for newborns. “Making sure ethics keeps up with technology is one of the major focuses of my world.”

How do Catholics like Ruiz honor the life and dignity of patients, without playing God—either by giving too much care, or not enough?

Cathy Adamkiewicz had to find that balance when she signed the papers to remove her four-month-old daughter from life support. The child’s bodily systems were failing, and she would not have survived the heart transplant she needed. She had been sedated and on a respirator for most of her life. Off the machines, Adamkiewicz says, “She died peacefully in my husband’s arms. It was a joyful day.”

“To be pro-life,” Adamkiewicz explains, “does not mean you have to extend life forever, push it, or give every type of treatment.”

Many believe that the Church teaches we must prolong human life by any means available, but this is not so. According to the Catechism of the Catholic ChurchDiscontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment” (CCC, 2278).

Does this mean that the Church accepts euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide—that we may end a life to relieve suffering or because we think someone’s “quality of life” is too poor? No. The Catechism continues: “One does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (CCC, 2278).

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of Pro-Life Activities at the USCCB, explains that caregivers must ask, “What good can this treatment do for this person I love? What harm can it do to him or her? This is what Catholic theology calls ‘weighing the benefits and burdens of a treatment.’ If the benefit outweighs the burden, in your judgment, you should request the treatment; otherwise, it would be seen as morally optional.”

Palliative care is also legitimate, even if it may hasten death—as long as the goal is to alleviate suffering.

But how are we to judge when the burdens outweigh the benefits?

Some decisions are black and white: We must not do anything, or fail to do anything, with the goal of bringing about or hastening death. “An act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator (CCC, 2277).

The dehydration death of Terry Schiavo in 2005 was murder, because Schiavo was not dying. Withdrawing food and water had the direct goal of killing her.

But if a man is dying of inoperable cancer and no longer wishes to eat or drink, or his body can no longer process nutrition, withdrawing food and water from him might be ethical and merciful. He is already moving toward death, and there is no reason to prolong his suffering.

Moral Obligations

Our moral obligations are not always obvious. Laura Malnight struggled with doubt and fear as she contemplated the future of her tiny newborn quadruplets. Two of them had pneumonia.

“It was horrible to watch them go through what they had to go through to live, being resuscitated over and over again,” Malnight says.

One baby was especially sick and had suffered brain damage. The doctors who had pushed her to do “selective reduction” while she was pregnant now urged her to stop trying to keep her son alive. “They said we were making a horrible mistake, and they painted a terrible picture of what his life would be like in an institution,” Malnight says.

Exhausted and overwhelmed, Malnight was not able to get a clear answer about the most ethical choice for her children.

Everyone told her, “The baby will declare himself,” signaling whether he’s meant to live or die. “But,” says Malnight, “my only experience with motherhood was with these babies, in their isolettes. The thing was, we would put our hands over our son and he would open his eyes, his breathing would calm.”

“We just kind of muddled through,” she says. Her quadruplets are now 13 years old, and her son, while blind and brain-damaged, is a delightful and irreplaceable child.

Doerflinger acknowledges Malnight’s struggle: “Often there is no one right or wrong answer, but just an answer you think is best for your loved one in this particular situation, taking into account that patient’s own perspective and his or her ability to tolerate the burdens of treatment.”

The key, says Cathy Adamkiewicz, is “not to put our human parameters on the purpose of a human life.”

When she got her infant daughter’s prognosis from the neurologist, she told him, “You look at her as a dying system. I see a human being. Her life has value, not because of how much she can offer, but there is value in her life.”

“Our value,” Cathy says, “is not in our doing, but in our being. Doerflinger agrees, and emphasizes that “every life is a gift. Particular treatments may be a burden; no one’s life should be dismissed as a burden.”

He says that human life is “a great good, worthy of respect. At the same time, it is not our ultimate good, which lies in our union with God and each other in eternity. We owe to all our loved ones the kind of care that fully respects their dignity as persons, without insisting on every possible means for prolonging life even if it may impose serious risks and burdens on a dying patient. Within these basic guidelines, there is a great deal of room for making personal decisions we think are best for those we love.”

Because of this latitude, a living will is not recommended for Catholics. Legal documents of this kind cannot take into account specific, unpredictable circumstances that may occur. Instead, Catholic ethicists recommend drawing up an advance directive with a durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy. A trusted spokesman is appointed to make medical decisions that adhere to Church teaching.

Caregivers should do their best to get as much information as possible from doctors and consult any priests, ethicists, or theologians available—and then to give over care to the doctors, praying that God will guide their hearts and hands.

Terri Duhon found relief in submitting to the guidance of the Church when a sudden stroke caused her mother to choke. Several delays left her on a ventilator, with no brain activity. My husband and I couldn’t stand the thought of taking her off those machines. We wanted there to be a chance,” she says. But as the night wore on, she says, “We reached a point where it was an affront to her dignity to keep her on the machines.”

Duhon’s words can resonate with caregivers who make the choice either to extend life or to allow it to go: “I felt thankful that even though all of my emotion was against it, I had solid footing from the Church’s moral teaching. At least I wasn’t making the decision on my own.”

Adamkiewicz agrees. “It’s so terrifying and frustrating in a hospital,” she remembers. “I can’t imagine going through it without having our faith as our touchstone during those moments of fear.”

 *********

End of life resources

 

Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services (from the USCCB)

Evangelium Vitae

Pope John Paul II, To the Congress on Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State, 20 March 2004 

NCBCenter.org provides samples of an advance directive with durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy.

This article was originally published in Catholic Digest in 2013.

What can American parents learn from a doll?

Polio_sequelle

In wealthy, progressive Seattle, polio vaccination rates are lower than in Rwanda. Parents in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Algeria, El Salvador, Guyana, Sudan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Yemen are doing more to protect their children from this crippling and often deadly disease than some American parents.

This dangerous trend is due, in part, to historical amnesia. There are fewer and fewer people around who remember the devastation of the polio epidemics of the late 1940′s and early 50′s.  Between 19445 and 1949, something like 20,000 American contracted polio. In 1952, there were 58,000 cases. Ten of thousands of American were paralyzed; many died. The nation was terrified, and rightly so.

Read the rest at the Register.

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Gee, your corpse smells terrific!

Bernadette

Not only does the Catholic Church “do science,” but she allows us a heck of a lot of latitude in our personal devotions. Myself, I have steered clear of incorruptibles as any proof of anything besides the fact that the world is weird, history is messy, and lots of people are different from me.

Read the rest at the Register. 

RIP Charles Townes, Brilliant Physicist, Man of Faith

Charles_Townes_statue

The idea that faith and reason are inevitably at odds with each other is one of the most persistent and least defensible myths of modern times.

Read the rest at the Register.

Mercola Officially Endorses Blowing Smoke Up Your Ass to Cure Ebola

No, really. Here’s the article, and here’s the money quote from one Dr. Robert Rowen, an “oxidative therpist” (emphasis mine):

Ozone is quite versatile, as you can administer it in many different ways. It’s extraordinary in terms of its anti-infective and antiviral action, and it has virtually no toxicity, making it a prime candidate for both prevention and treatment.

Ozone is only hard on the lungs, but it can be given in other ways. It can be given intravenously. It can be given in the bladder, in the vagina, in the rectum, via injection – anywhere.

You read it here first, folks. Right up the ass, and away goes the virus! (For the Mercola-resistant among us, here’s a wee bit of background about the effectiveness of oxygen therapy.)

Rumor has it that, for a small fee, you can request a specific nurse to administer the ozone into the orfice of your choice.

sexy ebola nurse

Well, goodnight, everyone.

 

RETRACTED: “Whistle-blower” Hooker’s study linking MMR Vaccine to autism in African American boys

PIC photo of Hooker

The Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings.

Original article by Brian Hooker  here. Retraction as follows:

Retraction: Measles-mumps-rubella vaccination timing and autism among young African American boys: a reanalysis of CDC data

Brian S Hooker

Additional article information

Retraction

The Editor and Publisher regretfully retract the article [1] as there were undeclared competing interests on the part of the author which compromised the peer review process. Furthermore, post-publication peer review raised concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis, therefore the Editors no longer have confidence in the soundness of the findings. We apologise to all affected parties for the inconvenience caused.

There is still no proven link between vaccines and autism.

There is still no proven link between vaccines and autism.

There is still no proven link between vaccines and autism.

There is still no proven link between vaccines and autism.

There is still no proven link between vaccines and autism.

There is still no proven link between vaccines and autism.

There is still no proven link between vaccines and autism.

Rational Catholic continues dismantling the shoddy science in Dr. Deisher’s vaccine/autism study

The indefatigable Rational Catholic, still undeterred by accusations of being an enormous meany-pants, has provided us with part two of what will be a three-part series explaining why there is no reason to accept Dr. Theresa Deisher’s study proposing a link between vaccines and autism.

In part one, Rational Catholic teased out the problems with Deisher’s statistical methodology. In part two,  Problems with Deisher’s Study: Biological Implausibility, Rational Catholic systematically dismantles Deisher’s actual hypothesis.

Noteworthy: Part II was updated to include commentary from Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, who has read all of Deisher’s public work. Fr. Austiraco has just been awarded his second research grant from the NIH. Rational Catholic added his comments on Deisher’s work with permission from Fr. Austiraco, who is a Dominican priest with a Ph.D in Biology from MIT. He teaches theology and biology at Providence College.

Congratulations to Fr. Austiraco (pictured below) and to Rational Catholic for their faithful work pursuing truth through rigorous science!

 

 

PIC Fr. Austiraco

Hey, who wants to talk about Dr. Deisher and vaccines and autism and fetal cells and statistics? Some more?

PIC man showing woman statistics chart

Not me! But other folks do, and ain’t other folks what make the world go round? Here are a few good reads for vaccine/austism/fetal cell/Deisher/statistical analysis die hards, following an odd exchange I had with Stacy Trasancos in the comment box of my Monday post, But what if we’re not scientists?

The folks at Rational Catholic have added an even more in-depth commentary on the statistical analysis in Dr. Deisher’s study with Looking a Little Closer at the Numbers

Joseph Moore of Yard Sale of the Mind offers Simcha Fisher’s Science Post: the Gift that Keeps On Giving!

And after Stacy Trasancos wrote this, to her credit she asked highly credentialed statistician Matt Briggs to evaluate Dr. Deisher’s study. You can read his opinion at Autism and Stem-Cell Derived Vaccines: Deisher’s New Paper.

So now you are all caught up! I find that I am sitting here slowly making my way through an unattended stick of butter as I type, so rather than go through and find tantalizing pull quotes for you from the links above, I’m going to get away from my computer for a bit. Byee!