Science and Sin 2 (RJS)

“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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  • Yes, envy is a sin.
    BUT, I believe at the root of my envy is a good desire for the thing I envy. I can envy someone’s artistic ability, for instance, but only because I am drawn by a good desire to be artistic in my own right. My envy is my chosen short-cut response of frustration because I am not there yet.
    Maybe this is why brain impulses follow envy? Maybe envy is much more intimately connected to the way we are wired than we tend to think.

  • Rick

    I think the original sin question is interesting.
    Did the Fall cause our brains and wills to be rewired, or did the consequences of the Fall (some form of death, etc…) impact people in such a way that they began to make choices that cause rewiring.
    Somewhat of a snowball effect: bad choices, rewiring, resulting in more bad choices, etc…

  • Measureing brain response to stimuli always frustrates me. It seems to completely ignore the forces of habit and discipline on the brain. Perhaps envy fires of those specific brain responses becasue the person has allowed, over x number of years, the feelings they get from the envy stimuli to normalise.
    It works with all animals. If you prompt a response with stimuli often anough, eventually the response will become normalised. That’s what training and discipline are all about, reprogramming the brain.

  • RJS

    I think you are right about training and discipline – but that is part of what some these studies show. There is honest “control” and the opportunity for modification. How does all of this fit with theology and the doctrine of sin?

  • RJS, I must confess I didn’t read far enough down the article you posted, I noticed what you mentioned afterwards.
    As for your question on theology/sin. I don’t think this kind of understading of the human being detracts in any significant from an orthodox understanding of sin etc. The Biblical import on sanctification seems to provide us with a framework for understanding how the work of the spirit, in conjuction with community, and a personal commitment to change all combines to the process of rewiring our brain by changing our habits and disciplines.
    Having spent time in the military, I’m a firm believer in the power of repetition and discipline on our brains. Some would call it ‘brainwashing’ but at least those who discipline themselves do so willingly – with a desired outcome in mind. Those who don’t will be shaped by life, but perhaps in ways they did not prepare for.
    In some respects I think ” I’m not responsible now for who I am. The person who is responsible for who I am now, is the ‘me’ of 5 years ago. I am responsible now, for who I will be in 5 years’ time”.

  • RJS

    Thinking about the nature of sin here has led me in another direction as well.
    Is it sin to worry about health care legislation robbing “me” to benefit “another” – robbing the rich to benefit the poor? Is this in fact giving free reign to the sins of envy, pride, and greed?
    Now – I am not talking about the proper way to achieve a compassionate health care system and I am not sure that “socialized medicine” is the answer. I am talking about motivations.

  • Rick

    Doesn’t this show that we can have mixed motivations? Some good, some “bad”?
    Doesn’t this also show the need to have an external source of truth, something to measure our thoughts, actions, and motivations against?

  • Patrick Oden

    I think this is a direction that Pannenberg’s understanding of sin becomes very useful. In essence, Pannenberg equates sin with a false pursuit of identity. God is the only one who has identity in himself, and our identities can, thus, only find fullness and direction in alignment with God.
    Anything else that seeks to provide identity that leads us away from this ultimate source of identity is sin.
    Why does it feel so good? Because sin is falsely promising a source of freedom and identity. It gives us a sense of self, of being, of reality in this world that could so easily ignore us and attack us. It assuages our ego, if only for a little while. But because it’s ultimately unsatisfying it demands more and more.
    Most sins as well are insufficient responses to what might be considered positive hopes. We hope for relationship and meaning with others. We hope to use our talents and gifts and interests to participate with others. We hope for love. We hope for sustenance. We hope to mean something with our lives.
    These hopes can fester, however, which means that even slight and incomplete alleviation of their burning leaves us with a temporary sense of peace and accomplishment.

  • Jayflm

    RJS, in comment 6 you posed a question about health care legislation and motivations of opposition. This is the same issue that I’ve seen played out whenever any of the ‘social net’ programs come up for debate. What happens with “your hard-earned money” is almost always the focus of opposition. This is a valid concern, as is the question of how much does public assistance lead to a lifestyle of laziness and dependence. But those who lead the opposition always seem to go too far with their radical individualism, which in my opinion does walk, and often cross over, a fine line between genuine concern and selfish greed.

  • pds

    In the study of “envy” it seems that the scenario described would elicit many reactions other than “envy.” For example, inferiority. So the MRI readings were not necessarily measuring envy.
    RJS- Thinking about and analyzing sin is interesting and can help us overcome it. But I am curious to know how you think the MRI readings help us. It is not obvious to me.

  • This leads me to think that a guilty pleasure might be writing imaginative short stories where your biggest rivals suffer dramatic demises…
    So easily my heart’s wickedness rises to the surface! But that reminds me of Proverbs:
    Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
    when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice,
    or the LORD will see and disapprove
    and turn his wrath away from him. (24:17-18)

  • RJS

    There is a tendency, I think, to view ourselves as separable body and spirit. As far as the MRI scans and other tests – I think these simply reinforce the realization that we are organic unities – body and soul. We should think about training to overcome sin the way we train to win a race.
    I am also thinking about this in connection with Paul’s discussion in Romans 5-8. No firm conclusions yet – but I think that these chapters have a few themes that all have to come together in the interpretation. One is this internal war within ourselves – the embodied nature of sinful desires, one is the role of Torah, one is the atonement … and there are more.

  • RJS

    Oh – and the conclusion in the section on pride: “…righteous humility, deliberate self depreciation, is but arrogance and pride in disguise. The brain activation is the same.”
    This got me thinking about the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teaching about “The Father who sees what is done in secret” and who knows what you need before you ask and expects forgiveness to receive forgiveness – we cannot hide.

  • RJS:
    “We should think about training to overcome sin the way we train to win a race”
    I can see people misreading that as a ‘works’ based faith. But I think Paul would agree with you. This is not about ‘salvation’ but about working out faith with fear and trembling.

  • Rodney

    Regarding Ro. 5-8, I think Paul’s argument is based on this premise: the generative source of our overcoming sin (both as human will and malevolent power) is our co-crucifixion with Christ. Death becomes our way of life (denial is embodiment, “do not present your bodies”). The Spirit is our power for overcoming the flesh (sacrifice is mental, “reckon yourselves”). So, these studies remind me of what Paul called “the law of sin and death.” And, since Christ had to come “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (a curious phrase!), he had the same challenges of overcoming this “law” (or constant). Thus, the necessity of the gift of His Spirit!
    Your questions have provoked for me all kinds of theological implications!

  • These experiments provide interesting evidence, but if we’re trying to deal with the relationship between the brain and sin, where’s the control group? We kind of don’t have one… Who is to say what would happen to Jesus’ brain were the same kinds of experiments done to him? A sinless brain might have different responses. Yes, some things are hardwired into the brain, but other things are a result of the manner in which we have trained the brain to form. There doesn’t seem to be a way to separate the two easily.

  • foxnala

    Matthew (#16) – Good question (i.e., where’s the control group?). But for the nature of the study that RJS is referencing, I don’t think you necessarily need a control group (in the sense of comparing against some hypothetical group of people who are “sinless”). Instead, the researches are looking at “before and after” brain activity — i.e., what brain activity looks like in an individual before the “sin” is induced, and then after (or while) the sin is induced. Therefore, in a sense, you could say that the “before” state of the brain is the control.
    This might be similar to an physical excercise study, in which you want to look at what the body’s muscles are doing by way of absorving nutrients both before excercise is induced and after (or while) excercise is induced.

  • pds

    RJS 12 and 13,
    Ok, you have convinced me . . . up to a point. And I agree with you that “We should think about training to overcome sin the way we train to win a race.” (Paul says as much, but that does not get much airplay in the world of hyper-Calvinists.)
    But the work of the Holy Spirit is involved too. Do you think that MRI’s can measure the Spirit? Can the Spirit taint the scientific test results?

  • RJS,
    I did my doctoral research on the integration of emerging brain research (neuroplasticity, systems theory, emotional intelligence and identity theory) and theology to understand how people learn and unlearn behavior. Finishing a book on it actually…
    There is a huge scientific interaction in how we behave, particularly the integration of emotions and behavior and emotions and thought.

  • RJS

    I don’t think that the Spirit can “taint the test results” – but I think that the Spirit empowers us, works with us and within us to overcome the tendencies for Sin. We develop the fruit of the Spirit.
    It doesn’t seem as though anything in scripture indicates that the Spirit zaps away tendency for sin without discipline and effort on the part of the person.
    Occasionally we hear in the church of miracle healings with an urge or desire removed, but even then other sins remain to be dealt with in more “ordinary” fashion.

  • pds

    RJS 20,
    I don’t have strong feelings about all this, but if the Spirit is a force or power that cannot be detected directly by scientific measurement, it seems possible that scientists could wrongly attribute the Spirit’s work to other factors.
    This just gets back to epistemological humility as to what we can know scientifically. There will always be an element of mystery in how the Spirit works within us.

  • This was fascinating (though perhaps we already suspected it intuitively?) …
    “righteous humility, deliberate self depreciation, is but arrogance and pride in disguise. The brain activation is the same.”
    And I love that giving gives more than taking. Though it seems good to me to cultivate the latter in a healthy form (even though it doesn’t feel as good. : ) )

  • nathan

    not to complicate this any further, but it would interesting to hear feminist theological voices interact with this material-especially as it relates to their critique of the idea that “pride is the root of all sin”.

  • Ann

    The interaction between wrath and the repression of the social interaction responses within the prefrontal cortex is particularly interesting to me in regards to soldiers returning from combat with PTSD. In particular, those who expressed regret over what they did within combat situations, even though “under orders,” frequently described symptoms that match those of PTSD. This makes me wonder what role memory plays in revisiting choices made under the influence of wrath – which is commonly incited by the military, first in training and then, of course, experienced under battle conditions.
    How much of our recurring and haunting memories are neurological attempts to re-create or change the past?

  • Josh W

    That brain study reminds me of a peice of teaching we had on Saul ages ago: The idea was that Saul’s pride was the central failure that brought down his kingdom.
    Now admittedly this smells a little of the classical “fatal flaw” which has it’s own problems, but to some extent it does fit the situation: His pride was his refusal to recognise the identity and status that God had given him, pushing himself to the back despite the previous evidence God had given of his favour, and pushing himself to the front when he should have left it to others.
    At the time these were described as the two sides of pride, the less obvious one being false humility.
    This puts into a different perspective Jesus’ words on humility and treating others better than ourselves. How can we remove the dishonesty from this? Perhaps because we don’t focus on ourselves, but emphasise the positive elements of others.