Friday, 12 July 2013

we all hold monsters inside

sometimes they escape us

HG Wells' Invisible Man, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Plato's Ring of Gyges and Palahniuk's Tyler Durden of Fight Club notoriety. All of these stories afford the protagonist a disguise, an excuse, for acting on his baser urges. And we love these stories. Because they tap into the eternal question of whether we as intelligent people would, given invisibility or an alter ego, continue to behave in a moral way if we did not have the fear of being caught or punished. When you are taken over by someone else, or you have the freedom to act as you please without being seen, then you are no longer responsible for your actions. Surely. The cynical view is that we behave the way we do for fear of punishment not for any sort of authentic desire for goodness.

We have a - and I'm going to go out on a generalising limb here - collective human obsession with good vs. evil. In philosophy, religion and ethics, good and evil appear as polarised forces on each end of a linear spectrum. The presupposition is that an evil person is the diametrical opposite of the good person. There is no grey on this spectrum. There is black. And white. Those who subscribe to a Buddhist perspective, see good and evil more as more of an antagonistic duality, and those who desire enlightenment must seek to assume the duality of these two forces in order to attain oneness.

Either way, we all have the capacity for choosing a moral or immoral path. Although in some this capacity is diminished through context, experience or neurological malfunction. Recent studies have implicated the amygdala (the little almond-shaped mass of nuclei located in the temporal lobe of the brain involved in many of our emotions and motivations) in morality and when dysfunctional, in psychopathy. The characters depicted in the above tales could very well be psychopaths. The amygdala is thought to respond to cues indicating distress in others, and so guiding individuals away from antisocial behaviour. Reduced amygdala functioning in more psychopathic individuals suggest reduced responsivity to the thought of causing harm to others when contemplating personal moral dilemmas. Without such amygdala activation, individuals may be undeterred from conning and manipulating others, predisposing to impulsive, irresponsible decisions and engaging in criminal behavior without feeling guilt. Even better if there is someone else to take the blame.

Perhaps these stories have so much resonance for us because, far from taking some sort of moral high ground and sitting back complacently on our heels in the knowledge that we are not psychopaths and that we make the right choices, we are merely relieved.

Where is my mind?

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