Human Behavior, My Brain Made Me do It?

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Science has made huge strides in understanding the human brain and how it functions. For example, we know that the frontal lobes are the center of rational thinking and of self control. It is also understood that neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, are responsible for our moods and of the general state that we are in. It is also known that severe mental illnesses, such as Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder, are diseases of the brain. Lesions or damage to the frontal lobes and to other parts of the brain can and affect impulses and impulsive behaviors. All of this knowledge raises disturbing questions. Does any of this mean that we are not responsible for our behavior?  Does it mean that we have no “free will” because “my brain made me do it?” It it’s true that my brain made me do it then, as a result, anything I do is a result of the way my brain works. In other words, I didn’t choose to steal that item, my brain did?

In criminal trials something called the “insanity defense” is used when the defendant claims they are not responsible for their actions because of mental health problems. Another defense is called “diminished capacity.” The diminished capacity plea differs in important ways from “not guilty by reason of insanity.”  In a successful plea of insanity the result is a verdict of not guilty. In this case the judge sends the defendant to a mental institution until it is determined that they are sane. At such time they are discharged from the hospital. Remember, they have been found not guilty. On the other hand, a successful plea of “diminished capacity” results in the defendant being convicted of a lesser offense and a lesser prison sentence than if they were guilty with full capacity.


So, does this mean that people who commit crimes do so because of the way their brain works? In fact, can’t it be said that, even with full capacity, a person should not be held responsible for their crimes because their brain made them do it?

Of course, there is the argument that behavior results from environmental influences. In this case, if some was physically, emotionally and verbally abused during childhood, it explains and forgives their decisions as adults. From time to time I have heard this said about some of the rudest people I have met. For example, rudeness is excused because someone had a tough childhood. In another example, a surly and nasty department store clerk is forgiven because they have a boring job. In these cases it is not their brain that made them do it. Instead, their environment made them do it>

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In reality, human behavior and psychology are complicated. It is most likely that our behaviors result from a complex interplay between each of our genetic make-up, brain chemistry and functioning and the economic, social and psychological environments in which we grew up and live.

The basic question remains: Are we responsible for our decisions and behaviors?

I will provide my opinion but I would like to hear from my readers about this issue.

In my opinion, we are responsible for our behaviors. If may boss yelled at me, my wife did not make dinner for me for when I got home from work and I kicked the cat and yelled at the kids, I am responsible for my bad behavior. Simply stated, there is no excuse for kicking the cat and yelling at the kids. In a similar way, this latest mass murderer in Colorado is responsible for his decisions and actions.

What is your opinion?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

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