Blame it on the Brain

Did your brain make you do it — or are you responsible for your actions even when your brain may influence your choices? It’s a thorny problem. Blame It On The Brain? is a look at the new trends in the brain sciences.

The author, Edward Welch, has a PhD in counseling psychology (specifically neuropsychology), as well as a master’s in Divinity. Welch writes in the context of a biblical worldview, and this book represents one of the better resources available to Christians on this important subject. In the first half of the book, Welch gives an overview of the basic divisions that have formed among those who study the brain. There is the traditional camp of dualism (either animistic or interactionist), that believes that there are two parts to man, the material and the immaterial. The immaterial is what gives us a sense of self.

The “elusive me” cannot be pinned down in any particular physical area of the person; there is something mysterious about it that defies scientific categorization. The monist camp, on the other hand, argues that all sense of self, all personality, everything that we are is a function of chemicals in our brain and nothing more. Monism teaches that man is entirely reducible and definable by his physical components, and that the illusion of the immaterial has persisted only because our science has not been advanced enough to understand the complexities of our brains.

Christians, of course, must adopt a form of interactionist-dualism to be consistent with what Scripture teaches. The monist view may sound attractive, but its logical endpoints are problematic. For example, if everything that we are is determined (predestined, shall we say?) by merely physical factors, a woman can blame PMS if she behaves emotionally or irrationally and is therefore not responsible for her actions during that part of her cycle. But think about the social and political implications of this practical application of the whole “my brain made me do it” position: if women are irrational and unable to control themselves during PMS, we should never elect a female president, because she will put the entire nation at risk during her PMS days. Monism denies the individual both choice and responsibility, reducing people to nothing more than intelligent animals.

In the second half of the book, Welch deals with the more common conditions/states that are related (or considered to be related) to one’s brain: ADD, alcoholism, homosexuality, Alzheimer’s and dementia, brain-altering head injuries, and depression. He organizes his discussion by dividing the problems by their cause (the brain did it, maybe the brain did it, and the brain didn’t do it). A few notes on the ones that particularly stood out to me:

Dementia: Here Welch gives some case studies that are truly fascinating. Sometimes a person suffering dementia will seem to completely change in personality — an apparently chaste man will start making lewd comments to women, a woman known for kindness will start displaying selfishness, etc. Welch argues that the biblical diagnosis for these apparent personality shifts is that these things have always been a part of that person and are only now coming out. These traits emerge because the person is losing his/her ability to distinguish between the public and the private worlds. That made so much sense to me! The sins that have been hidden for years are making their way to the surface.

Homosexuality: Though it is just one chapter, Welch’s treatment of homosexuality is an excellent resource on the topic as a whole. First Welch examines the biblical evidence on why homosexuality is sinful (a necessary exercise in our culture of revisionist Bible scholarship). His arguments are textually supported and simply make sense contextually. He then goes on to explore some of the common (and incorrect) Christian responses to homosexuality, ranging from outright homophobia to the idea that homosexuality is caused by a “love debt” that the homosexual never had fulfilled by the same-sex parent. There are no conclusive studies of any kind that can prove that homosexuality is caused by the brain. Christians struggling with homosexual desires should never be told that they will always be that way or that they must live with their passions but never act on them. Rather, we need to offer the hope of change and sanctification that is available to every Christian dealing with any sin. Homosexuality is no worse than any other sin despite the homophobic stigma it has carried in the past.

Alcoholism: In this chapter Welch discusses the current wisdom on dealing with alcoholism, especially AA philosophy, and where it falls short of biblical truth. I guess I never realized the paralyzing power of alcohol and its grip on its victims; there is an alcoholic in my extended family and I always assumed she could just stop if she wanted to. And while that is true, I never really knew about the ongoing torture of withdrawal. Welch deals with the idea that alcoholism is a function of one’s brain, discussing the total lack of hope of this practical outworking of monism.

Attention Deficit Disorder: Welch makes the point that ADD is a label that describes what a person does, not what he is. Saying “I’m restless because I have ADD” is like saying “I’m restless because I fidget.” We need to get past the label to the behavior, and past the behavior to the heart. I was really interested in Welch’s thoughts on our attitude toward medication. He isn’t against it, not even the much-decried Ritalin. He agrees that ADD is over-diagnosed by psychiatrists who are seeking a quick fix in the face of parental desperation, but does not rule out the use of medication entirely. Rather, he subjects it to the penetration of Scripture, which searches our motives. Medication should never be a first resort, but it can be useful in some cases to control symptoms, allowing the person to tackle the spiritual components of the disorder.

Welch is unfailingly compassionate and truly committed to serving brain-altered persons and their families. He lays out both the spiritual and academic bases for the brain problems as well as practical insights gleaned from his counseling practice. There is so much help here for families coping with a brain-altered family member. Welch strongly affirms that we should not think we understand someone once we slap a label on him; each case is unique and we should constantly be studying the person to understand how his brain functions are different from ours.

While certainly not exhaustive, this book provides a strong foundation for further research. With the advances in the brain sciences, it’s imperative for Christians to understand these issues from a grounded worldview. This is an insightful and valuable book that has been very educational for me — and no doubt life-changing for many who have dealt with these problems firsthand.
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