My Brain Made Me Do It? And Other Questions About Neuroscience

REVIEW:   Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld,  NY: Basic Books, 2013.

This book is short (156 pages of text) and easy to read while being well researched and documented (61 pages of interesting, helpful notes and citations – in a point size enough smaller than the text to make one believe that in the original draft there was as much space, time and effort devoted to this endeavor as there was to the writing of the text)

The authors make it clear that they are nether opposed to or over-archingly critical of brain science in general or neuroimaging in specific.  They do, however, take the positions that

(1)     Neuroscience is a brilliant development, but still young and at the very early stages of discovering what it has to discover.

(2)     Some authors, enthusiasts and members of the media take small discoveries from neuroscience and hype them up until claims are made that cannot come close to being substantiated.

(3)     We have not yet achieved a level of understanding that allows us to dismiss the mind as an artifact of brain.

(4)     It may be better for us to look at disease and health, discomfort and happiness, sociopathy and ethical behavior through the lens of psychology and mind rather than the lens of neuroscience and deterministic biology.


This Is Your Brain on Ahmadinejad: Or What Is Brain Imaging?

In which the authors explain the basis for technologies such as PET scans and functional MRIs and also describe many of the limitations inherent in the data collection.  These include matters of scale, averaging across subject, conflating causation with correlation, and other pitfalls.

The Buyologist Is In: The Rise of Neuromarketing

This chapter looks at how neuroscience is used to sell product and how much money is spent on this project.

Addiction and the Brain Disease Fallacy

T o quote: “Psychiatrist Jerome Jaffe, an eminent figure in the field and the first White House advisor on drugs… see the adoption of the brain-disease model and a scientific setback. (p. 57) and “Recovery is a project of the heart and mind.  The person, not his or her autonomous brain, is the agent of recovery.” (p. 58)

The Telltale Brain: Neuroscience and Deception

This chapter takes on lies, memories, false memories and the efforts of neuroscience to identify truth from falsehood.

My Amygdala Made Me Do It: The Trials of Neurolaw

Here we get a look at the technical, legal, conceptual and philosophical aspects of neurolaw.  Neurolaw is seen as the integration of brain science into legal theory and moral philosophy.

Chapter 6: The Future of Blame: Neuroscience and Moral Responsibility

This is the chapter to which I have the most to say.  Clearly, the idea, following from the previous chapters, that blaming the brain for one’s bad behavior is a trap that can serve to let people off the hook for things for which they should be held accountable is a good one.  I am in total agreement with the authors about the complexity of behavior and importance of accountability for one’s behavior. I believe that it would be going down a very bad rabbit hole, indeed, to say that all behavior is driven by the structure and experiences of our brains and therefore we cannot be held responsible for what we do.

But there are two lines of thought in this chapter that bother.  They are small but consequential.

The first has to do with the use of the statement made by Clarence Darrow at the sentencing of Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold in 1924.  (Loeb and Leopold had murdered a child in a very cold and calculating way ostensibly to experience what it was like to kill someone and to prove their superiority to the mere masses.)  This is the passage the authors chose to quote from Darrow:

They killed him because they were made that way. Because somewhere in the infinite processes that go to the making up of the boy or the man something slipped, and these unfortunate lads sit here hated, despised, outcasts, and the community shouting for their blood.

Although Darrow’s statement can be seen as an example of what the authors term determinism and which I most often see called biological determinism, certain things are not made clear.   First, Clarence Darrow was in no way arguing for acquittal.  Loeb and Leopold had pled guilty to the crime and the matter before the judge (there was no jury) was sentencing and sentencing only. It was a sentencing hearing not a trial.  Darrow was a strong opponent of the death penalty and was arguing for life in prison for these young perpetrators, saying “If the state in which I live is not kinder, more human, more considerate, more intelligent than the mad act of these two mad boys, I am sorry I have lived so long.”1

Second, Darrow’s focus is described as consistent with the deterministic view that people’s actions are caused by the structure and experiences of their brains – that because of this Loeb and Leopold had no control over their actions.  Their actions were inevitable.  Instead, my reading of Darrow’s statement is that he viewed the boys as having a mental disorder or illness that prevented them from having insight and judgement.  Such a disorder is not necessarily seen as innate, structural and immutable, but might be a process and might be malleable.

Darrow clarifies his position:

… there is not a single person who reasons who can believe that one of these acts was the act of men of brains that were not diseased. There is no other explanation for it. And had it not been for the wealth and the weirdness and the notoriety they would have been sent to the psychopathic hospital for examination and been taken care of instead of demanding that this court take the last pound of flesh and the last drop of blood from two irresponsible lads.2

In summary, I believe the author’s premise that brains don’t simply cause behavior is correct, but the use of Darrow as an exemplar of the neurology-causes-behavior school is misplaced.

My second dispute with the material in this chapter has to do with the section that focuses on people’s need or desire for retribution.  The authors posit that it is necessary to have repayment in order to satisfy the need of the victim – to give due respect to the victim.  Data are provided and interpreted to show that such needs are universal and shared by all of humanity.

My objection here is that all those data were (1) collected in the kinds of laboratory situations that can be criticized because of the simplified and unreal environment in which they were collected, and (2) using subjects who share a culture which supports such views.

On page 141 there is a vignette about a hypothetical rapist who is treated with a hypothetical drug that eliminates his urge to rape.  Authors state that giving the offender the drug and releasing him would have “woeful repercussions” for the victim and her family and community.  And then goes on to say that “When society fails to condemn aggressors or simply slaps them on the wrist, victims feel unavenged and therefore devalued and dishonored.”

My thoughts about this statement:

(1)     It is implied that the only alternative to our current way of dealing with such offenders is “a slap on the wrist.”  Perhaps the hypothetical offender in the vignette should be released after his urges are chemically removed.  But perhaps he should also go through some therapy (all people with urges or compulsions do not act on them), and/or be made to make restitution in some way.

(2)     It is stated that equivalent restitution is necessary for people to be properly respected and properly “repaid.”  But what of people like the parents of Matthew Sheppard – who urged that their son’s brutal murderer NOT be put to death.  I quote from the New York Times story about the trial of one of Matthew’s killers:

With a call for mercy from the parents of the gay student he beat and left for dead on a prairie fence, Aaron J. McKinney was spared the death penalty today in a courtroom in Laramie, Wyo.

‘”I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney,” the dead man’s father, Dennis Shepard, said in a long and impassioned statement ….  ”However, this is the time to begin the healing process, to show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy.’3

(3)     Just as the authors point out that imaging studies are based on the averaging of many images and do not represent any individual’s brain, the studies cited about people’s attitudes about retribution rely on averages of data which do not represent individual views.

(4)     In spite of references demonstrating that it is a universal view (retribution is necessary), I do not believe that to be true – or at least how it is defined and how it looks may vary greatly from one culture to another.  I am no scholar in this area but can cite at least one scholar who might argue based on her research among the Native American people of Alaska.  According to Anne Fienup-Riordan when someone failed to follow the rules of the Yup’ik community, the first thing to do was to talk to them (p. 208).

One person should go to that person and warn him.  And if he does not listen to his initial warning, then two people must go to him and again they will warn him.  If he does not listen and obey those two, then lots of people meet with him then and warn him and talk to him about how he should conduct himself.  By that method, they rehabilitate those people who keep messing up …  4

It is made clear that these are warnings, not scoldings and that the belief of the people was that the universe keeps things in balance.  For example, the offender might get sick, because illness can be caused by being out of balance (behaving badly) and would become well again if he behaved well.  People did not retaliate, but the thing to do was to leave the wrongdoer alone and get them to admit their wrongdoing. (p. 211) Or, there might be humorous songs made up and sung about people’s transgressions at ceremonial times.  And if the transgressions were bad enough and persistent enough, the person might eventually be banished permanently from the tribe or living group.

These are two rather specific points on which Satel and Lilienfeld and I disagree, but which I consider important to our understanding of society and to the direction we want to guide our efforts as a culture.

In general and for the greater part, I found this an excellent read and would recommend it highly to others interested in the content and direction of psychology, neuroscience and our so called science of mind.


1  For a synopsis of the trial see the University of Missouri Law School web page:

2  transcript from Attorney Clarence Darrow’s Plea for Mercy and Prosecutor Robert E. Crowe’s Demand for the Death Penalty in the Loeb-Leopold Case – The Crime of the Century.  Chicago, IL: Wilson Publishing Company, September, 1924 available at

3  Michael Janofsky, November 5, 1999. New York Times.  Accessed June 28, 2013.

4  Evon, Albrite, 26:9-10 YN quoted in Anne Fienup-Riordan  , Ann (1990) The Yupiit Nation: Eskimo Law and Order, Chapter 9 in Eskimo Essays: Yup’ik Lives and How We See Them.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


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