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Alternate Activity 1: Our Hard-Wired Brains (8 minutes), Session 13: Bad Guys, Good Guys

In "Amazing Grace," a Tapestry of Faith program

Description of Activity

This discussion speaks of psychology and physiology and asks for comments about legal defenses based in psychology.

Begin by asking youth to define "psychology" and "physiology." (The first may be defined simply as "the science of mental process and behavior." The second can be defined as "the biological science that studies how a living body works physically.")

Ask the youth whether they think psychology and physiology can explain why people think and act the way they do. If so, where does religion fit in? Can people obey the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule if the wiring in their brains tells them to be bad? What would participants say if they were judges in a case where a criminal admitted to setting buildings on fire but claimed that he had to do it because he had an abnormal brain? If they were judges, which would they rely on more, what the law says or the testimony of psychologists and physiologists who say somebody is sick in a way that makes them do bad acts? Should these sick people go to jail? Should they be free to act badly again?

In the course of discussion, help youth to understand that:

  • Psychology and physiology are both extremely complicated.
  • Doctors and scientists today understand a lot about the brain and behavior, but they do not understand everything they would like to know.
  • Psychology defenses have become more common in criminal cases during recent years. Defendants often argue that mental illness made them act in wrong ways. Sometimes these defendants behave so strangely that it is easy to believe what they say. Sometimes that is not the case, however, and it can be difficult for judges and jurors to decide whether mental illness caused the wrong act.
  • Research shows that some people are unable to feel sympathy for other people. They do not know how to act right because they cannot understand what happens when they do wrong.
  • Research also shows that an understanding of what is right is built into many people's brains. In some ways, they have built-in moral compasses that help them know how they should act.
  • Research shows that even animals seem to know they should not hurt other animals. In one experiment, every time a rat was fed, its neighbor received an electric shock. Eventually the first rat stopped eating, preventing its neighbor from being shocked. (See the Shankar Vedantam article listed under Find Out More.)

Conclude by noting that although this is interesting, does it suggest that we can all blame our brains every time we do something wrong? Answer the question, if participants do not:

Of course not. Most of us have good brains and bodies that we can use to make good decisions about right and wrong. We must act as if we have free will, and do right whenever we can. If we do not, we will make the world a worse place than it is. We will also get ourselves into trouble.

Notes: Fascinating though they are, psychological theories and research are largely beyond the scope of Amazing Grace: Exploring Right and Wrong. Deciding how to use all the moral tools at their disposal is challenge enough for most sixth graders. For a related activity that introduces the evolutionary theory of morality, see Alternate Activity 1 in Session 14, Letting the Good Out.

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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