Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Virtue Ethics: An Ethical Development Program for High School Youth

Activity 2: Story - The Debate Among the Parts of the Brain

Part of Virtue Ethics

Activity time: 20 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Read the story so you can present it effectively.
  • Make sure the chalice lighting words from the Opening are still posted.
  • Optional: Copy the story for all participants.
  • Optional: Print drawings of the parts of the brain and use them as simple puppets while telling the story. The National Institute of Health website has a diagram of brain parts.

Description of Activity

Tell or read the story.

Then, say:

The story illustrates what science calls the "binding problem." How does our brain process information and make decisions? We know that it is not straightforward and sequential. For example, when you heard the invitation to choose a snack, your brain leapt into action, with all of the parts from the story acting at once. We know this because scans of the brain show how the neurons in each part of the brain fire virtually at the same time-not one after the other. They are communicating from the first instant to make the decision. Some of the brain parts help you make conscious decision. Some parts of the brain perform their jobs without you being aware of their contribution to your decision. Some of those decisions are based on past actions.

For example, if you have frequently bitten into worms when eating peaches, neurons in parts of your brain will fire off repulsion to peaches, which you will interpret as a conscious decision to not take the peach.

Here is another example: Have you have ever found money that did not belong to you? [Wait for a show of hands.] Sometimes, if you turn it in, you receive a reward. The reward could be monetary, but it could also be someone's sincere appreciation or the pleasure you receive from knowing you committed the actions of a good person. Your memory keeps these positive experiences. Every time you return lost money and get a positive consequence, you are more likely to return money the next time you find it because that section of your brain that deals in memory will be more inclined to tell you to return the money because other parts of the brain want that good feeling again. Does this make sense?

Lead a discussion with these questions:

  • Is your understanding of the process of decision making different now than before the story? If so, how?
  • Is someone willing to volunteer to try to imagine the processes your brain went through when you chose your snack?
  • Is the quote from the Buddha supported by what we know about how the brain makes decisions? [Indicate the chalice lighting words you have posted.]


There is still so much we do not understand about brain science. Scientists are trying to answer the question: What makes us human and different from other animals? One difference is the size and nature of the cerebral cortex and many think that holds the answer. One idea postulated by scientists is that as humans came together in communities, we were forced to communicate and cooperate and this grew our cortex. The larger our communities became, the larger the cortex. This idea might have some validity since many of the animals with the largest cortex (chimpanzees and elephants, for example) live in larger communities. For many years, scientists have believed that tool making "made" us human. Some now think that living in community "made" us human: In other words, we only became human in the presence of each other.