Science and Sin 2

“Why does being bad feel so good?”

Studies of brain response to various situations may provide important insights to this question.

In the last post in this series we considered some of the science pertaining to lust, gluttony, and  sloth as discussed in the article “Seven Deadly Sins” in the September 2009 issue of Discover Magazine (the magazine has a website at – but this article is not available on-line, at least not yet).

Today I would like consider the last four — pride, envy, greed and wrath. Greed has not been studied explicitly, but the other three have.  Despite the fact that these seem to be sins of the will or spirit rather than the body, they, like lust, gluttony and sloth, have biological roots and observable signals in the brain.

Envy is interesting – in a study of envy a number of volunteers were observed using fMRI (functional MRI) while they read one of three scenarios – the key one described a student similar to the volunteer, but better in every respect.  The conflict detecting regions of the brain fired and the response was similar to that for pain. This leads to the suggestion that envy is a kind of social pain.  Later, when reading about this student’s downfall, the reward and pleasure regions of the volunteer’s brain fired.  Not only this but the greater the pain in reading about the student’s success, the greater the reward in reading of the student’s downfall.  The reward response is along the same line as that experienced from food – or sex. It feels good.

Is envy sin? Is the pleasure in reading of a virtual rival’s downfall sin?

Wrath is another visceral human response. The brain-circuitry responds very quickly to situations invoking anger. The conflict centers light up and the response spreads to other regions of the brain. Some people respond quickly in anger and others brood. In the brooders centers involved in self awareness and regulation respond, as do centers involved in memory when the brooder relives the events.  Thoughts of revenge trigger reward responses.  But this point really got me thinking:

…people asked to imagine themselves engaging in aggressive behavior actively suppress activity in the prefrontal cortex, where social information is processed. By deliberately inhibiting our natural social response we make ourselves detached enough to strike out. (p. 52)

There is a conscious detachment process in revenge and aggression. And this leads to another take on the question of science and sin:

Where does natural response stop and sin begin?

And now the queen of vices – Pride. Gregory the Great in commenting on Job noted (p. 489-490): “For when pride, the queen of sins, has fully possessed a conquered heart, she surrenders is immediately to seven principal sins, as if to some of her generals, to lay it waste. … For pride is the root of all evil, of which it is said, as Scripture bears witness; Pride is the beginning of all sin.”   Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica dealt also with the question of pride as sin and concludes that is is indeed sin: “Now right reason requires that every man’s will should tend to that which is proportionate to him. Therefore it is evident that pride denotes something opposed to right reason, and this shows it to have the character of sin”

Does pride show response in brain scans? The science here is rather interesting.

For most of us, it takes less mental energy to puff ourselves up than to think critically about our own abilities. … volunteers who imagined themselves winning a prize or trouncing an opponent showed less activation in brain regions associated with introspection and self-conscious thought than people induced to feel negative emotions such as embarrassment. … pride might be processes more automatically.

In another experiment a part of the brain could be stimulated to turn off the protective influence of pride.  When this happened “they saw themselves as they really were, without glossing over negative characteristics.” (p. 51)

Ah… even more interesting the experiments demonstrate that righteous humility, deliberate self depreciation, is but arrogance and pride in disguise. The brain activation is the same. “Both are forms of one-upsmanship. ‘They are in the same location and seem to serve the same purpose: putting oneself ahead in society.‘” (p. 51)

But it the role of the brain doesn’t end with instinctual pain and pleasure. We have an ability to control our own neural processing and to modify behavior and reward.  On top of this we are, perhaps, wired for virtue. This has been tested as well. “The big punch line is that all things being equal, your reward system fires off a lot more when you’re giving than when you’re taking,” (p. 52) quoting Jordan Grafman of the NIH NINDS.

What does this mean? Perhaps it comes down to what it means to be human. We are organic unities – mind and body are not separable. The body is not a monster to be tamed – or ignored; but an integral part of who we are.  (Fully embodied souls.)  Most interestingly we can train our brains and influence response – especially true of sins of envy, wrath, and pride.

I’ve asked too many questions in this post – but perhaps they can spark a useful conversation. The notion of sin – and natural response compared with sin leads me to two other questions of a more theological nature as well.

What is sin, and what does it mean when we affirm that Jesus was fully human – yet without sin?

Does an understanding of brain responses influence an understanding of sin? How about an understanding of original sin?

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