Saturday, September 18, 2010

Whistling in the Dark

In Walt Disney's "Pinocchio," Jiminy Cricket advises Pinocchio (and by extension, all of us) to "Always Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide."  In particular, he tells us that "When you get in trouble and you don't know right from wrong" or "When you meet temptation and the urge is very strong," you should "Give a little whistle!"

Personally, even as a five-year-old, I found this advice completely unhelpful.  Standing there with my little hand poised over the cookie jar, I'd give a little whistle, at which point my mom would call from the other room, "What are you whistling about?"  I'd answer, "Ohhhh, nnothhinng...," and be right back where I started, wondering whether it was really so very wrong to just take a little cookie.   

More powerfully, when asked to inform against friends who had connections to the Communist Party, writer Lillian Hellman stated in her letter of May 19, 1952 to the US House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, "I am ready and willing to testify before the representatives of our Government as to my own opinions and my own actions, regardless of any risks or consequences to myself...  But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions...".     

So what is human integrity made of?  Is it solid and substantial, something that can be tailored (for better or for worse) by our circumstances?  Or is it ephemeral, a little whistle in the (sometimes overwhelming) moral darkness that surrounds us? 

A recent study published in Science suggests that the capacity for introspection (a key component of any functioning conscience) may be connected to specific areas of the brain.  In "Relating Introspective Accuracy to Individual Differences in Brain Structure" (Science 329, September, 17, 2010, pg. 1541), Stephen M. Fleming, Rimona S. Weil, Zoltan Nagy, Raymond J. Dolan, and Geraint Rees argue that there is a correlation between "introspective ability" and "gray matter volume" and "white-matter microstructure" in the anterior prefrontal cortex (the region of the brain that tends to be more highly developed in humans and that is associated with problem-solving and planning).  

Put much too simply, it would seem that the ability to inwardly debate one's own perceptions and "discriminate correct from incorrect perceptual decisions" with respect to the outside world may be shaped by one's neuroanatomy.

At the same time, however, neuroscientists have increasingly acknowledged the fact that "brain maps"--schematics that associate certain skills or abilities with specific regions of the brain--tell only part of the story.  Recent studies in neuroplasticity suggest that our brains form and reform neural connections throughout our lives, both in response to new experiences and information and in order to recover from injury and disease.  The brain can--and often will--reorganize itself in order to function more effectively, provided it receives appropriate stimuli.  (For more on this subject, check out this lecture by Michael Merzenich or Norman Doidge's fascinating book, The Brain That Changes Itself [2007]).

So, it may be that, whatever our particular allotment and configuration of gray matter, our conscience can develop through use or, conversely, atrophy through disuse.  Although it may seem that one day, we're pilfering a cookie, and the next, we're Eliot Spitzer, hiring a high-priced call girl to help us celebrate The-Day-Before-Valentine's-Day, our brains are not to blame.  Consider instead the many days in between, when the mental connections between right and wrong and our place in the world remain severed--the times when the slippery slope of moral bankruptcy still provides the illusion of traction and so we don't even so much as whistle.

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