Our Bad, Bad Brains: Roundtable Discussion for Brain Games’ Brains Behaving Badly Episode

This week’s virtual roundtable discussion, hosted by National Geographic’s Brain Games, involves bad behaviors. The roundtable discussion is meant to prepare readers for a Brain Games episode titled “Brains Behaving Badly”, which will air February 28 on the National Geographic Channel at 9 PM ET, 8 PM CT. NeuroscienceNews.com was allowed to view the episode early and was invited to answer three intriguing questions regarding the episode.

Are humans hardwired for transgressions? Why are some of the brain’s most basic instincts considered bad behavior? Why does bad behavior come so naturally to us?

A transgression can be defined as an “act that goes against a law, rule, or code of conduct; an offense.” Brains Behaving Badly focuses on the Western religious classifications of the “seven deadly sins:”  pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Accordingly, this post will attempt to provide a few ideas relating to behaviors that many in the Western world consider to be immoral. This post is an opinion piece covering ideas involving morality, evolutionary psychology, religion and philosophy. As such, much of it is speculative, opinionated and is meant to help spark conversations involving behavior and morality, rather than serve as a definitive scientific paper on any of the subjects discussed.

Are humans hardwired for transgressions?

I do believe average human brains have evolved in such a way that they may be considered to be hardwired to act contrary to social norms, laws, rules, or as some religious people would say, “sin.” Of course human brains are not identical.

Even aging can lead to some people committing bad behaviors they probably wouldn’t have committed when they were younger. We have certain neurodegenerative diseases that usually manifest in our aging populations that lead to patients being diagnosed with frontotemporal-dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Among these patients, 57% of those with frontotemporal dementia are estimated to violate social norms, compared to only 27% of Alzheimer’s patients. (The Brain on Trial by David Eagleman) So much for that nice old lady down the street myth.

I believe most of these transgressions to be hardwired in the brain for generally simple reasons in the light of evolution. They were extremely important in helping our species survive despite great pressures over millions of years. Many of these “sins” probably evolved because they were extremely useful at some points in time.

Sexual promiscuity increases genetic variation. A male that has offspring with various females, has a higher probability of passing along his genetic material into that species. When a species has a larger amount of genetic variation, it is possible for that species to cope with different pressures that may arise over time. These pressures may be from predators, climate change, meteors, parasites, other groups within the same species, and the list goes on. It seems a few of the sins we are all familiar with may be thought of as originating from reproductive needs of the species.

Though lust can be thought of as an intense desire for a variety of forms, the most common one we think of is the desire for sexual contact with another person. When we focus on the brains of people we believe are lusting for others, brain scans tend to show areas involved in the limbic system to be important. Areas like the nucleus accumbens seem to be correlated with reports of pleasure and craving in many subjects.

When scientists try to instill feelings of envy in test subjects, the anterior cingulate cortex seems to be highly involved according to research by Hidehiko Takahashi and his team. The cingulate cortex also seems to be important in processing physical pain. It seems our brains have evolved to use very similar networks to process physical pain and envy. Conservation is often seen in evolution, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that neural networks can use the same areas to provide different functions.

Image by Hieronymus Bosch.
Are humans hardwired for transgressions? Why are some of the brain’s most basic instincts considered bad behavior? Why does bad behavior come so naturally to us? Credit: Hieronymus Bosch.

As for wrath, rage or violence, neuroscience is starting to get some hints. Diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging studies from King’s College London are showing that the uncinate fasciculus, a white matter tract between amygdala and prefrontal cortex, isn’t as pronounced in some violent criminals labeled as psychopaths, as it is in others with similar IQs and age. The researchers also noticed that the degree of abnormality was significantly related to the degree of psychopathy. “These results suggest that people with psychopathic personality disorder have biological differences in the brain which may help to explain their offending behaviors” a press release from KCL noted. (Nature paper: Altered connections on the road to psychopathy)

Why are some of the brain’s most basic instincts considered bad behavior?

I believe some of our behaviors are considered bad by societies because those societies came up with imperfect rules after our basic brain areas evolved over millions of years in tremendously variable conditions. Many of the rules would cause the downfall of a species if they were followed by all. For religious leaning readers, imagine how Adam and Eve, or Noah and his family members had to reproduce. No matter how one tries to avoid the thought, one must come back to the idea of incest not only being acceptable, but even necessary and enforced. In higher population areas, incest can be considered bad for various reasons, which I definitely agree with as well. Just keep in mind that if any event causes only two humans to remain, then the survival of the species would require tremendously different behaviors than most of us consider OK. The point is our ideas of bad and good would have to change based on the situation. Situational ethics must trump social rules for humans to survive in some extreme cases.

Why does bad behavior come so naturally to us?

It seems that competition is an underlying commonality across all of the bad behaviors listed in the seven deadly sins. Competition for sexual partners, money, land, ideas, religions, political seats, sports titles, job titles, song rankings, museum exhibits, best seller lists, and so many other facets of humanity is what drives so many of us. Even if we don’t tell anyone, it seems our need for competition drives us. Even to comment, or lurk in social media seems to be driven by it. The newly termed “Facebook Envy” could even be a result of this natural, competitive nature. Perhaps “bad behaviors” come naturally to us because competition has always been, and still is, a major driving force for not only human evolution, but nearly all species fighting for survival.

Perhaps successful groups of people created rules to stifle competition from others. Many rules throughout societies seem to have been put into place to oppress others only after the rule makers made it to the top. Many times, different socioeconomic in-groups judge other out-groups’ crimes as more severe than theirs, though they are essentially very similar, if not the same crimes. A hungry person stealing food may not be a more severe criminal than a CEO of a major corporation lying about profits, loan risks, the safety of cigarette smoke, or airbag shrapnel, yet I tend to only hear about the food thieves serving time. For some reason, people that work in suits have less severe punishments than people that can’t work or afford suits. Perhaps we need to determine why our species tends to deliver ineffective punishments unfairly in a flawed justice system.

As someone once sang, “Who’s bad?”

You can watch Brains Behaving Badly this Sunday on National Geographic’s Channel starting at 9 PM ET/ 8 PM CT. We would greatly appreciate reading any opinions you have about this article and episode.

About this Neuroscience Opinion article

Here are some terms, popular science links and research papers that may help you further investigate some of the opinions presented here and in the upcoming Brain Games episode.

Neuroethics: a modern context for ethics in neuroscience

Justice may be hard-wired into the human brain

The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment

When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude. Takahashi H1, Kato M, Matsuura M, Mobbs D, Suhara T, Okubo Y.

“The Ethical Brain: The Science of our Moral Dilemmas,” by Michael S. Gazzaniga
Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others By David Livingstone Smith

Jones, Owen D. and Buckholtz, Joshua and Schall, Jeffrey D. and Marois, Rene, Brain Imaging for Legal Thinkers: A Guide for the Perplexed (December 20, 2009). Stanford Technology Law Review, Vol. 5, 2009; Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 10-09. Available at SSRN

The Brain on Trial by David Eagleman

Initiative on Neuroscience and Law

“Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,” by Dr David Eagleman


Ormachea PA, Haarsma G, Davenport S, Eagleman DM (2015). A new criminal records database for large scale analysis of policy and behavior. Journal of Science and Law. In press.

Plitt MH, Savjani RR, Eagleman DM (2014). Are corporations people too?: The neural correlates of moral judgments about corporations and individuals. Social Neuroscience. 1-13.

Edson C. Tandoc Jr., Patrick Ferrucci, Margaret Duffy. (2015). Facebook use, envy, and depression among college students: Is facebooking depressing? Computers in Human Behavior, 4, 139-146. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214005767

In-groups, out-groups, and the psychology of crowds.

Ingroup/Outgroup Biases at Play in Police-Community Relations

Henry, E.A., Bartholow, B.D., & Arndt, J. (2010). Death on the brain: Effects of mortality salience on the neural correlates of ingroup and outgroup categorization. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5, 77-87.

Kringelbach, M. L., & Berridge, K. C. (2010). The Functional Neuroanatomy of Pleasure and Happiness. Discovery Medicine, 9(49), 579–587.

Exploring implicit ingroup and outgroup bias toward Hispanics. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations January 2015 18: 89103, first published on July 28, 2014

neuroscience of ethics
neuroscience of morality
evolutionary psychology
evolutionary neuroscience

Author: Erik Driscoll – NeuroscienceNews.com
Image Source: The image, “The Hay Wain by Hieronymus Bosch” is credited to Hieronymus Bosch and is in the public domain.

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