Saturday, September 25, 2010

More About Intention

As you can probably tell by now, my brain is definitely my favorite body part.  I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about what makes other people do what they do, and then I try to figure out what the rest of us are supposed to do with them once they've done what it is that they've done.

So I found Tim Wogan's article "Murder or Accident: The Brain Knows" (ScienceNOW, March 29, 2010) really interesting--especially since I'm reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) right now.

Briefly, Wogan describes a series of scans and studies designed to identify which area of the human brain "allows us to make moral judgments of another person's motives."  So, if you've ever found yourself thinking, "Why, that sneaky little no-good bastard...", chances are, the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ) of your brain was all lit up at the time.

According to Wogan, this area of the brain, located "just above the right ear," "receives more blood than usual when we read about people’s beliefs and intentions, particularly if we use the information to judge people negatively."

In an effort to try to determine which comes first, other people's bad intentions or the brain's reaction to them, scientists used a magnetic field to disable certain regions of the brain in a group of volunteers, and then gave them stories of accidental and attempted murder to read.

I have several reactions to this.  First, I say "kudos!" to all of the brave volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30 who nonchalantly agreed to let other people use a really big magnet to temporarily shut off part of their brains.  Personally, I stare anxiously at my computer screen every morning, praying that it will boot up same as always. 

Secondly, it is interesting that, with the RTPJ turned off, research subjects gave attempted murderers a pass--their perceptions of other people's intentional states seemed to be altered in favor of forgiveness.  But forgiveness is a value-laden term, dependent on context.  In Crime and Punishment, for example, the protagonist's act of murder stems from a well-intentioned but inherently wrong idea pursued in single-minded isolation.

Raskolnikov's intentions constantly shift and morph throughout the first part of the novel, and his quest for redemption and forgiveness hinges on his own eventual understanding of why he did what he did, and whether or not he is genuinely remorseful.

The thing is, though, sometimes he is, and sometimes he isn't.  Like all of us, Raskolnikov has feelings of terrible guilt interspersed with periods of denial, self-justification, and just plain old orneriness (the "what's-done-is-done-and I-can't-help-it-so-stop-bothering-me-about-it" mindset).

For Dostoevsky, intentions are never fixed, even if our perceptions of them are (or seem to be).  More importantly, Dostoevsky repeatedly suggests that our perceptions of others' intentions should not cause us to assume that we know the full story about their inherent moral goodness or future prospects for ethical decency and humane action.

For Dostoevsky, forgiveness can't be measured in brain waves or blood flow; it is a leap of faith that defies logic.  It comes from the heart, not the head.  To the psychological adage, "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior," Dostoevsky would say, "Nonsense.  The future is never predictable.  People are never predictable.  You can never know for sure what someone will do or why they'll do it."

And that's what makes us all so interesting.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."