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Forgiveness

Does Your Brain Cause You to Forgive?

Some recent studies suggest that brain structure predisposes people to forgive.

Key points

  • Some neuroscience studies show differing brain structures and states for those who have a tendency to forgive and those who do not.
  • The evidence, however, concerns associations between the tendency to forgive and the brain. There are no cause-and-effect studies.
  • It is argued here that cause-and-effect may be confused in the conclusions to these studies.
  • Exercising the mind may be the cause of different brain structures and states developing more fully in those who have a tendency to forgive.

Because the first published empirically-based scientific study of forgiveness was in a psychology journal (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989) and because the vast majority of the thousands of published articles that followed have had a psychological emphasis, it was taken for granted that one’s choice to forgive is a non-materialistic, psychological phenomenon. Yet, some research published recently suggests that forgiveness occurs because of certain brain states.

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

The neuroscientific approach

Li et al. (2017) did a study of the tendency to forgive (TTF) and brain structure. With a sample size of 199 young adults (60 males), the researchers reported that higher TTF scores were associated with larger gray matter volume in the regions of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is related, at least to some degree, to being able to take other people’s perspectives. Higher TTF scores were associated with smaller gray matter volume in the regions of the right insular cortex and inferior frontal gyrus, which are associated with negative emotions, such as feeling repulsed. In other words, self-reporting that one will forgive is associated with the brain’s ability to take the perspective of others while avoiding repulsion for the other’s bad behavior. Yet, what is cause and what is effect here?

As an analogy, suppose that we have a weightlifter who has done heavy bicep work for three years. When given a self-report scale of the tendency to lift weights, this person likely will score higher on bicep size than those who do not lift weights. Do we then conclude that it is the big biceps that are responsible for this person’s self-reported interest in lifting weights, or is it the other way around—the person has exercised a free will to lift weights and persevered in this, resulting in larger biceps? In other words, psychology (will and perseverance) led to growth in the arm muscle. Might it be the same with reporting the tendency to forgive, the largeness of some areas of the brain that are exercised while the person forgives, and the smallness of other areas that should shrink with the will and action of forgiving?

In a related study, Li and Lu (2017) assessed 178 young adults (55 men) who completed the TTF scale and underwent a resting-state fMRI scan. There was lower brain activity in the right dorsomedial prefrontal cortex for those participants who had a lower tendency to forgive. The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is associated with social perspective-taking abilities, as is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the study discussed above.

In contrast, Fourie, Hortensius, and Decety (2020), in their review of the literature, hypothesize that the lateral prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal junction, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex are associated with a forgiveness response when unjustly hurt by others. In contrast to Lu et al. (2017) and Lu and Li (2017), these authors do not conclude whether it is the brain structure or the brain activity which leads to the psychological response of the forgiver.

Confusion of cause and effect

In examining the two studies above by Lu and colleagues, Moawad (2018) concludes: "The differing brain structural anatomy associated with a tendency to forgive suggests that forgiveness could be a trait that people are born with.”

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

We must be careful when looking at any psychological issue through the lens of neuroscience. This is the case because we must resist the philosophy of materialism getting in the way of what are the important causes of healthy psychological responses to challenging environmental situations. We do not want to fall into the trap that we have no free will and that biology is our destiny.

This kind of thinking could undermine the non-material, psychological qualities of perseverance and free will. It thus takes away our human qualities of triumph in the face of challenge. After all, what is triumphant about being born with more gray matter than the next person?

Here is one more example of how this cause-and-effect issue can get distorted: Suppose we have the world’s highest jumper, and this person has, from a biological perspective, extraordinary tendons in the knees. If we then find 10 other people with similar higher-than-average knee tendons, it surely will be the case that not all have achieved what the champion has. The champion, in other words, cannot attribute gold medal success exclusively to knee tendons. In addition to that are the inner determination to practice, the inner perseverance to keep going in the face of pain and other challenges, and the free will to choose to do this.

It is the same with forgiving. Just because person A might have a certain brain wiring does not lead to automatic forgiving. People who forgive, when we look at their inner, subjective resources to forgive, report that this is hard, challenging work that needs a free will and a strong will to continue offering this goodness to one who caused pain.

As a final and important point, let us not presume that the brain structures, which are associated with forgiving, were already in place prior to the forgiving. It is distinctly possible that as a person perseveres in forgiving, these very brain structures actually develop to a higher level, as in the case of the persistent weightlifter’s biceps. The cause of increased brain function, in this case, is the psychological act of forgiving, starting in the non-material mind (Feser, 2006), which then activates the brain functions. The materialist philosopher presumes one cause-and-effect pathway, while the philosopher with more classical training presumes a very different pathway.

References

Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989). The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.

Feser, E. (2006). Philosophy of mind. London: Oneworld Publications.

Fourie, M. M., Hortensius,R. & Decety, J. (2020). Parsing the components of forgiveness: Psychological and neural mechanisms. Neuroscience & biobehavioral reviews, 112, 437-451 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.02.020

Li H., Chen Q., Lu J., & Qiu J. (2017). Brain structural bases of tendency to forgive: Evidence from a young adult sample using voxel-based morphometry. Scientific Reports.7, 16856. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-16868-3.

Li H, Lu J. (2017). The neural association between tendency to forgive and spontaneous brain activity in healthy young adults. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 561.DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00561

Moawad, H. (2018). The neurobiology of forgiveness. NeurologyLive, September 24. (https://www.neurologylive.com/view/neurobiology-forgiveness)

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