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Seven deadly sins
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Today's deadliest sin is cruelty - Telegraph
Create a Want BookSleuth Can't remember the title or the author of a book? Our BookSleuth is specially designed for you. Today, paralyzing lassitude is often seen as a symptom of disease rather than of turpitude. Apathy is a classic sign of frontotemporal dementia. In this neurodegenerative disorder, the frontal lobes of the brain are slowly eaten away, causing social and mood changes as well as cognitive decline. Patients with such dementia often become increasingly withdrawn. Sadness and listlessness are also hallmarks of major depression. With frontotemporal dementia the symptoms are caused by dead and dying cells; in depression the root cause is still unknown.
In both conditions, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex has an unusual pattern of activation. Related to its ability to inhibit impulses, this region has a role in sustaining attention over the long haul. Abnormal function in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex might be connected to the lethargy associated with both conditions.
Conversely, activity in this area may keep a lid on negative emotions; in some studies, depression lifted with stimulation of that part of the brain. Indeed, psychologists say that arrogance is second nature in Western society. Most of us perceive ourselves as slightly smarter, funnier, more talented, and better-looking than average.
These rose-colored glasses are important to mental health, functioning as a psychological immune system that protects us from despair. For most of us, it takes less mental energy to puff ourselves up than to think critically about our own abilities. In one recent neuroimaging study by Hidehiko Takahashi of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan, 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.
We accept positive feedback about ourselves readily, Takahashi says. Righteous humility has traditionally been depicted as the virtue that opposes pride, but the work of Keenan and others calls that into question. He is using TMS to disrupt deliberate self-deprecation—the type of unctuous, ingratiating behavior that seems humble but is actually disguised arrogance. Patterns of brain activation during self-deprecation are fundamentally the same as those during selfdeceptive pride, Keenan is finding.
Despite the enormous pool of potential research subjects, greed has not yet been systematically investigated in brain research. However, neuroscience does offer insight into a related phenomenon, the indignant outrage of the cheated. Our hatred of unfairness runs deep, even trumping rational self-interest. One of two partners is given a sum of money and told that he must offer some amount of his own choosing to his partner.
If the partner rejects the offer, neither gets to keep any of the cash. On a rational basis, the receiving partner should accept any nonzero offer, since getting some money is always better than getting none at all. It makes sense that we are so sensitive to being cheated, notes Matthew Lieberman, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Inequitable treatment might be an important sign that we are not valued by the group. In response to unfair offers, the brain activates the pain detection process. It also engages the bilateral anterior insula, an area implicated in negative emotions such as anger, disgust, and social rejection. The overall picture that emerges from fMRI is that of a brain weighing an emotional response the urge to punish the guy who is cheating you against a logical response the appeal of the cash. People seemed to be swallowing their outrage to accept a reward that was inequitable but appealing.
Similarly, getting a fair offer—even if it was small in absolute terms—activated regions in the brain that are involved in automatic and intuitive reward processing. Justice apparently feels good. For that reason, it is also the least fun of the deadly sins; feeling jealous provides no dirty thrill. Volunteers in fMRI machines were asked to read three scenarios. The striatum is part of the so-called reward system, which can be activated by such pleasures as money, food, or sex, Takahashi says.
It may not have been the original sin, but rage is certainly primordial: Much of the brain circuitry active during anger is very basic and very fast. In humans, anger also enlists the conflict-detecting dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which immediately alerts other regions of the brain to pay attention.
The more upset you get, the more it activates, according to Tom Denson, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia. In people with short fuses, this part of the brain seems to be primed to feel provocation and personal slights, Denson says.
Some of us are more easily enraged than others, but few are able to stifle rage completely. Instead we may convert overt hostility into angry brooding. To investigate the difference between short fusers and brooders, Denson antagonized his volunteers, insulting them while he scanned their brains. The medial prefrontal cortex, associated with self-awareness and emotional regulation, quickly lit up in angry brooders.
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So did the hippocampus, involved in memory. As they fume, people repeatedly relive the insult in their minds. Denson found that the degree of hippocampal activation predicted how much people tended to ruminate. Do it! Similarly, 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 ready ourselves to strike out. Historically, moralists have not paid much heed to the findings of science, and it is safe to say that all the brain-scans in the world probably will not persuade modern theologians to recalculate the wages of sin. Still, they might want to observe one recent finding from modern neuroimaging: It turns out that acting virtuously does not really require a hair shirt.
In fact, research suggests that it feels pretty good. Jordan Grafman recently found that virtue literally is its own reward. Altruistic behavior sends reward-related brain systems into a pleasurable tizzy—even more so than the prospect of self-interested gain. Call it the dirty little secret about being good: It might be even more fun than being wicked. From The Brain Fall Why does being bad feel so good? Gluttony Today it is difficult to regard overeating as a sin, considering the overwhelming evidence of the powerful role of physiology in appetite.