Brain Health and Free Will


OK, I’m not sure what forum this belongs in, so if the moderator needs to move it, just let me know where and when.

Recently, I watched a Dr Daniel Amen MD, on PBS. He has a show on brain health, and how in his experience, he has been showing through brain scan imagery, that functions of the brain can change the way we think, and also the way we behave.

He was interesting enough, that I went out and purchased his book, yesterday.

Dr. Amen was raised Catholic, but I’m not sure what faith he is now, being I’ve just started reading the book and about him.

However, his research has proven, that the brain functions do cause behaviors, such as ADD(Attention Deficit Disorder), depression, anxiety and even rage.

In fact, a number of patients who came to him, were being treated by psychiatrist for depression and suicidal tendencies, and rage, without much success. Through SPECT imaging, Dr. Amen was able to treat the disorder successfully.

Through SPECT imaging, he found that such patients had deformity in the parts of the brain, which controlled the behaviors and emotions. From this, he was able to treat the patients and has a 100% success effective rate.

Anyway, he mentions in his book about what was thought to be free-will, is not necessarily the case. People who were once considered bad people, where changed, once they visited his clinic and receive the help, that before, was not though possible.

In relation to all of this, my own confessor(a PHD in Theology) once explained to me, that the three conditions for committing a mortal sin, are not necessarily infallible. They are a good guideline that can be used in determining if a mortal sin was committed, but because brain chemistry and function, may have played a role in preventing a person from making a decision with full consent, it would not be a mortal sin. He used road rage as an example. Most people who commit road rage, do so impulsively, without even thinking about what they’re doing, until they’ve done it. Was full consent given here? From the science we’re learning, probably not. He said that science is proving more and more, that brain chemistry and disorders, my cause many behavioral patterns that over ride a persons free will to act properly. This is not an excuse, and must be looked at by a confessor, on individual cases.

Also, Dr Amen does say that his study should not be used as an excuse for bad behavior, because we still have a sense of right and wrong, and can make good choices on most moral issues.

The reasoning behind my interest in this, is that Dr Amen also provides methods and advice on how to help create and keep a healthy brain. He has some techniques in helping brain performance, which can help in decision making, and controlling emotional responses to events in everyday life.

Last, I think this new science will be something that the Church will have to use in understanding free-will and will influence how priest are trained in hearing confessions.

In Christ


I just read Dr Amen‘s book „Healing the Soul‘s Hardware“. I got it because it was well recommended in a book by Tomislav Ivancic, the Croatian founder of „Hagiotherapy“, a method of psychologically founded pastoral counseling deeply rooted in orthodox Catholic belief and practice.

That said, I was somewhat disappointed in Dr Amen‘s medical philosophy because his heavy emphasis on medication to correct the causes of human unhappiness and dysfunction seemed to me so 1980s/early 90s. That was the heyday of amphetamines (Ritalin) for ADD etc. Not many neurologists are still that sold on these drugs. There‘s a reason for the phrase „talking back to Prozac“. And surprisingly, a new generation of behaviorists – once known for their anti-free-will, Pavlov‘s-dog view of human nature – has been doing a lot of high-caliber thinking (translation: most of it is over my head) about the living, choice-making human being who does the talking back. ACT (pronounced „act“, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is an example. ACT is a a good complement to work like Dr Amen‘s because it goes into much more detail, backed by a lot of theory, on „healthy brain exercises“ and how they work.

In Dr Amen‘s book I was hoping for less on psychopharmacology and more in-depth discussion of a point which Dr Amen does, to his credit, make: that the brain and the soul influence each other. A brain gone haywire can lead to thought patterns which aggravate the brain malfunction that caused them. On the other hand, redirecting unconstructive thoughts can calm the overactive brain functions that tend to feed such thoughts, so that in time the brain ceases to produce or favor them. Diet also can help, or at least avoid making a known problem worse.


I just started reading his latest book, but doesn’t he recommend the use of drugs, just through his brain healing phase of the therapy?



In relation to all of this, my own confessor(a PHD in Theology) once explained to me, that the three conditions for committing a mortal sin, are not necessarily infallible.

I think it is we who interpret the three conditions that are not infallible…and probably it is the “full consent” definition that is most wrongly interpreted and misunderstood, but not always - the other two conditions can be misunderstood also. It can also be misunderstood that the three conditions must be present at the same time that “grave matter” is enacted in some way. And even if correctly understood and present, judgement remains The Lord’s for the very reasons that we really do not understand fully what lays behind human behaviour.



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