Jack Lewis, neuroscientist: ‘A modicum of deadly sins is perfectly healthy and morally appropriate’

The British researcher describes the science behind the behaviors censored by religion, arguing that if they were completely suppressed, the human species would not survive

Raúl Limón
Jack Lewis neurocientifico
Neuroscientist Jack Lewis, in an image provided by the author.John Clark

Jack Lewis, 46, is a popular neuroscientist born in London and trained at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. and Germany’s Max Planck Institute. For his 2018 book The Science of Sin, Lewis researched how the brain conditions human behavior. In this book, the so-called deadly sins — censored by most religions — serve as a guide to unravel how and why we succumb to temptations.

Lewis recognizes that they are tools of social control, like a primitive criminal and civil code, but argues that they are also responses that have ensured our survival: “The seven most common human temptations are a perfectly acceptable, if not entirely necessary, part of our behavioral repertoire. If they were completely suppressed, it is quite possible that our species would not survive.”

Question. Given our brain configuration, are we born sinners or predisposed to sin?

Answer. For such an intrinsically social species as Homo sapiens, equipped with incredible brain networks enabling the vast majority of us to intuitively understand how each other feels, which facilitates the development and maintenance of healthy social bonds, I would argue that the default predisposition is not to sin. If the social environment in which a person is raised fails them by not exhibiting clear evidence of how much more can be gained by pursuing pro-social outcomes over and above personal gain, then the resulting anti-social behaviors are more likely to fall into the category of “sin.”

Therefore, in my opinion, a sinner is raised not born. Our predisposition is to learn the benefits of acting fairly in our dealings with other people in our environment. This has always been essential to the survival of members of our species. Being an accepted part of a group always leads to better outcomes than going it alone. Team players, who benefit from the social cooperation of other, live for long enough to pass on their genes. Those who are shunned by their community due to extremes of anti-social behavior usually do not.

Q. But you describe in your book brain functions related to the response to temptations...

A. The brain region in question appears to generate psychological and physical sensations of distress. Whether or not an individual responds to such feelings in a way that leads to harm to their social relationships dictates whether or not religion considers them to have sinned. The default setting is to be successful in learning how to manage these feelings without causing rifts in our relationships. We don’t always get it right, but we do tend to improve as we get older and wiser, enabling most people to maintain their membership of a cooperating group.

“Everyone suffers, we differ only in degree.”

Q. Sins are a tool of social control (you write, “The gods are very useful when it comes to imposing codes of conduct on a large scale”) and also key to our evolution. Where is the boundary between a beneficial and harmful drive?

A. This boundary could be described in very simple terms: finding the balance between maximizing personal gain, without seriously upsetting your community and finding yourself ostracized. A modicum of greed, lust, gluttony, pride, envy, wrath and sloth is perfectly healthy and morally appropriate. It is only in excess that they inevitably lead to anti-social outcomes; hence the warnings against such behavior and prohibitions issued by several religions. Everything in moderation is applicable here as is it in other aspects of life.

Q. You write that, if everyone resisted the seven temptations, there would be less social friction, more cooperation, and therefore everyone would win. How can we resist?

A. Practice, determination and optimism. The huge body of evidence supporting the concept of neuroplasticity — even in adulthood, the human brain is capable of strengthening certain connections, weakening others and thereby slowly but surely changing our behavioral repertoires — suggests that if we regularly (daily), intensively (push ourselves) and over the long term (keep at it) practice emotional self-management we can develop the brain areas that give us more control over excessive levels of activity in our dACC [dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the brain region linked to anterior cognitive and emotional control].

In other words we can all take steps to develop a habit of looking at our emotional distress more objectively. This alone makes it more likely that, instead of responding anti-socially, we might instead choose a pro-social way to respond to others. For example, if someone offends us, rather than responding angrily we can instead think about the pain and distress that they might be suffering (i.e. contemplate how overactive their dACC might be) causing them to behave in an unpleasant way and thereby switch feelings of anger to sympathy.

This certainly isn’t easy, but with practice we can improve to a point where, rather than being hot-headed and impulsively blurting out a response (or plotting our revenge over a longer period of time), we can instead channel our energies into empathizing with their suffering. Everyone suffers, we differ only in degree. From that vantage point, we can steer our behavior towards the only thing that really matters: reaching a pro-social outcome. To nourish social connections rather than destroy them.

Q. Does social media create narcissists?

A. Not always, but it can certainly fan the flames of fledgling narcissism. It depends on how you engage with social media and it depends on exactly who you follow. If you gorge excessively on the social media feeds of narcissistic or angry people, then the daily exposure to their output will tweak your brain circuitry to normalizes the types of behaviors they exhibit. We humans are natural mimics and we often copy the behaviors of the people we regularly engage with; often without even noticing we are doing it.

If, on the other hand, you follow inspiring, fascinating, thoughtful people who are altruistically motivated to share a positive outlook on art, life, sport, humanity, culture, then the daily exposure will tweak your brain circuitry in differently. It will normalize these messages and ideas, encouraging the mimicry of non-narcissistic behaviors and a more positive outlook on humanity.

We humans tend to follow the crowd. Truly we are pack animals. These days, with social media and whether we realize it or not, we all have the power to curate exactly which crowd we allow to influence us on a daily basis. It comes down to being vigilant in finding the right people to follow on social media and evicting the bad apples from our feeds.

Q. Cortisol facilitates the total demolition of gluttony’s self-control. Is there be a chemical solution to it, like Ozempic?

A. Ozempic might suppress appetite but gluttony is about so much more than just food. It’s about taking in excessive quantities of a substance via our mouths. So a glutton on Ozempic might be able to eat less food, but does it help to moderate their intake of drinks or drugs?

High cortisol in our system makes us feel stressed and stress drains our capacity to suppress immediate gratification. Many forms of immediate gratification temporarily reduce cortisol only for it to climb ever higher later on. Chemical methods of reducing appetite or stress are sometimes effective, but most chemicals we take into our system usually have unwanted side effects. Drugs give with one hand but take away with the other, so non-chemical routes to managing high cortisol levels are usually more sustainable and preferable overall.

“Porn does not necessarily lead to a preference for the fake over the real, but it is likely to lead to sexual interest in phenomena that are not readily on offer from one’s life partner.”

The best way to reduce cortisol is to engage in social interaction with people you find easy to get on with. Exercising regularly. Spending recreational time in nature. And perhaps most importantly practicing some form of meditation — whether focusing attention on breathing or getting lost in the flow of a good book, a craft, a musical endeavor — is extremely effective in managing stress and the many potentially negative downstream impacts of stress.

Q. With respect to lust: does porn develop a preference for the fake over the real?

A. Porn websites cater to every imaginable sexual persuasion. It is all accessible at a click of the button. Having accidentally viewed a type of pornography that at first seemed unpleasant or unpalatable, it may not seem quite so unpleasant or unpalatable if stumbled upon once again at a later point in time. Several exposures later, perhaps weeks or even months later, the response may have gone from mild aversion to somewhat tantalizing. Before they know it, a person may find themselves actively pursuing a form of pornography that has become desirable, despite finding the initial experience slightly unpleasant.

This might start with women with grotesquely enlarged breasts, or men with intimidatingly large penises. After a while responses to these supersized sexual stimuli might progress from offputting to exciting, but ultimately it may be deemed boring, at which point the consumer of pornography will likely feel motivated to see what else is out there. And so the cycle continues. It doesn’t necessarily lead to a preference for fake over real, but it is likely to lead to sexaul interest in phenomena that are not readily on offer from one’s life partner.

Q. Are we slaves to the brain's response to sexual arousal?

A. Feelings of sexual arousal are beyond our control. They are an automatic, physiologically, chemically driven response. Acting upon those feelings of sexual arousal, however, are very much under our control. We can be physiologically ready for sex, but choose to not act upon that readiness. Taking a cold shower or thinking about an elderly relative naked are popular methods of taking decisive action to reduce sexual readiness.

Q. Greed is not instinctive, but requires some degree of conscious deliberation. Can greed be taught?

A. Greed can certainly be taught. There are all sorts of convenient narratives that people can tell themselves (and their children) to justify the disproportionate control of resources enjoyed by the rich compared to the poor.

Q. Regarding envy, you assert that, from the point of view of evolutionary psychology, enjoying the misfortune of a superior makes sense. How?

A. Schadenfreude — the joy derived from others’ misfortune — likely evolved as a mechanism for reinforcing social bonds. Those we perceive to be superior to us in some way usually have greater power or influence over others than we do ourselves. Those who have power over others are usually in the minority: the manager, the leader, the celebrity, the despot. When a large number of people, who share the feeling of being at a disadvantage to those who have greater power, simultaneously feel happy when their superiors fall from grace or suffer an embarrassment, it reinforces the sense that they are in it together. They might not have the power and wealth of the people they envy, but at least they have each other.

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