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Why do people act this way?

Posted By Ellen Ratner On 11/18/2012 @ 2:05 pm In Commentary | No Comments

Just when we thought all the lunacy and hubbub of the election was done, we were pushed straight into the Gen. Patraeus mess. It became more and more inconceivable as a story: the FBI agent sending an inappropriate photo of himself on the Internet, Jill Kelley getting upsetting emails and reporting them, Gen. Patraeus and Paula Broadwell thinking they were outsmarting the system by keeping emails in their drafts files so they could read them and not have them in a “sent” file. Add to that the financial troubles of the Kelleys and her special license plates and you have a group of self-deluded people.

Later during the week, I learned about some other upsetting news: the escalation of the bombings from Israel and Gaza, a cheating scandal at a college, more corruption in Africa’s developing countries and IKEA’s admission that during the 1980s some of their furniture was made by East German political prisoners. I could go on about the shocking things that people do, but most of you already know about such actions. You have seen them in the newspapers, on local TV and in Internet headlines.

The question is why? Why do people act in these ways and delude themselves? Why do people not think out the consequences of their actions? Sometimes the answers are obvious. We know that when the frontal lobe of a brain is damaged that “executive function” is changed and people will not think about the chain of events that might follow an action. We know that temporal lobe epilepsy causes hyper-religious behavior and thoughts. The list of what we know about different parts of the brain is getting longer but certainly not endless.

My friend and colleague, James (Jim) Pinkerton, has an idea (and a blog) called Serious Medicine. I have written about it in this column before. Basically, the idea is to cut down on the costs of health care by tackling the biggest diseases we confront, and to do a Manhattan project for the top five major diseases. Jim points out The March of Dimes and how it was instrumental in curing polio. He suggests a similar project for our top diseases of Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer.

If we could make a dent in those diseases, the costs of health care would greatly decrease.

What if we use Jim’s ideas concerning the brain? How much does violence cost? How much do wars cost? How much do affairs from marriages cost? Family breakups? How many people exist who can’t think of the consequences of their actions, such as corrupt politicians and

dictators? How many college students who engage in cheating don’t think they will be caught? I would hazard a guess that it is even more than the costs of cancer or heart disease.

These financial and human costs can be tied to brain function and behavior that is often self-delusional and without understanding of consequences.

We are quickly getting the technology to study brains, to study behavior and to understand why people make the choices they do.

Slowly via uses of functional MRIs and the study of neurotransmitters, we are beginning to know more about addiction and violence and empathy. We’re far from understanding all violent or corrupt or impulsive sexual behavior, but we are getting clues from neuroscience. It will take years and perhaps more than a century or two to get a handle on why people act the way they do and how we can predict and stop such destructive behavior.

Some will think that the dangers of “mind-control” lurk around the corner. A bad/mad scientist could create havoc. Privacy (is there any now?) would be ended with massive brain quests. However, these concerns need to be balanced against what we see on a daily basis of war, murder, cheating and family destruction. Isn’t it worth spending the money and time to find out how our brain can be reprogrammed to be saved from self and species destruction?

We are sending out billion-dollar voyagers to explore the universe; we could do the same for the universe of the mind. It might take centuries, but the time to begin is now.


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