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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Human Behavior, My Brain Made Me do It?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 1st 2012

Human Behavior, My Brain Made Me do It?Science has made huge strides in understanding the human brain and how it functions. For example, we know that the frontal lobes are the center of rational thinking and of self control. It is also understood that neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, are responsible for our moods and of the general state that we are in. It is also known that severe mental illnesses, such as Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder, are diseases of the brain. Lesions or damage to the frontal lobes and to other parts of the brain can and affect impulses and impulsive behaviors. All of this knowledge raises disturbing questions. Does any of this mean that we are not responsible for our behavior?  Does it mean that we have no "free will" because "my brain made me do it?" It it's true that my brain made me do it then, as a result, anything I do is a result of the way my brain works. In other words, I didn't choose to steal that item, my brain did?

In criminal trials something called the "insanity defense" is used when the defendant claims they are not responsible for their actions because of mental health problems. Another defense is called "diminished capacity." The diminished capacity plea differs in important ways from "not guilty by reason of insanity."  In a successful plea of insanity the result is a verdict of not guilty. In this case the judge sends the defendant to a mental institution until it is determined that they are sane. At such time they are discharged from the hospital. Remember, they have been found not guilty. On the other hand, a successful plea of "diminished capacity" results in the defendant being convicted of a lesser offense and a lesser prison sentence than if they were guilty with full capacity.

So, does this mean that people who commit crimes do so because of the way their brain works? In fact, can't it be said that, even with full capacity, a person should not be held responsible for their crimes because their brain made them do it?

Of course, there is the argument that behavior results from environmental influences. In this case, if some was physically, emotionally and verbally abused during childhood, it explains and forgives their decisions as adults. From time to time I have heard this said about some of the rudest people I have met. For example, rudeness is excused because someone had a tough childhood. In another example, a surly and nasty department store clerk is forgiven because they have a boring job. In these cases it is not their brain that made them do it. Instead, their environment made them do it>

In reality, human behavior and psychology are complicated. It is most likely that our behaviors result from a complex interplay between each of our genetic make-up, brain chemistry and functioning and the economic, social and psychological environments in which we grew up and live.

The basic question remains: Are we responsible for our decisions and behaviors?

I will provide my opinion but I would like to hear from my readers about this issue.

In my opinion, we are responsible for our behaviors. If may boss yelled at me, my wife did not make dinner for me for when I got home from work and I kicked the cat and yelled at the kids, I am responsible for my bad behavior. Simply stated, there is no excuse for kicking the cat and yelling at the kids. In a similar way, this latest mass murderer in Colorado is responsible for his decisions and actions.

What is your opinion?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Insanity defence. - JR - Aug 3rd 2012

Hello, Allan.  Thanks for your response.  I will think about this, and revert in due course.  Your response raises a very interesting point; but there is definitely a question over whether a person who commits an act, however horrible and outrageous, should be found fully, criminally culpable in a situation in which they were, for all intents and purposes, out of their mind.  There is, I think, a definite difficulty with the fact that the presence of psychiatric illness, and/or a "brain illness" causing such illness, may render an individual incapable of criminal responsibility as defined by fundamental legal principles.  We are, perhaps, trying to play on different playing fields. 

One point - should the dreadful nature of the pure, objective criminal action determine the response of society to the individual committing it, should that person prove that, at the time of that action, their apprehension was so impared as to make it impossible for them to appreciate the objective "evil" of their actions ?  Should the "insane" perpetrator suffer the same penalty as one in full possession of his or her faculties, in defiance of the requirement of law that there be, in one of a number of defined circumstances, the presence of "evil mind" ?  We could go on and on about this - and perhaps we shall ...  Best regards, JR.

Legally Challenged - - Aug 3rd 2012

Dear JR,

First, let me say that I welcome you back. I've wondered how you are doing. I hope you and your's are well.

As to your question and, (is it reasonable, and consistent with concepts of justice under the law - to ignore the consequences of such disability in a criminal trial)?  for me, it's from a purely philosophical and psychological point of view. I have no doubt that, from a legal point of view in the UK and the US, the consequences of this disability cannot be ignored in a criminal trial.

However, what disturbs me is the trend towards everyone pardoning bad behavior because their genes and brains made them do it. What I mean is that, even as we learn more about the human brain and how it functions, we are still able to think in ways that are ethical and to make decisions based on our ability to reason. In this I'm referring to "normal people" whatever that means.

To go back to your original point, I have worked with people when they were deep in a psychotic state. Of course, this was in the hospitals. What struck me was their ability to control themselves regardless of hallucinations and delusions. That makes it hard for me to believe that people do not know the consequences of their behavior. Common law is based in a different time, when a lot less was known about human behavior. In any case, I guess I've become hardened as a result of all the mindless shootings that are happening in the U.S.

Anyway, what do you and others think??



Legally challenged. - JR - Aug 3rd 2012

Hello, Allan.  Hope you and yours are well.

As regards the "insanity defence", it is worth bearing in mind that this does not result from the wisdom of medical professionals, but that of lawyers.  While some measure of reform has occurred in recent times, the measure of insanity in the Common Law (which includes US law) is based, more or less, on an archaism called "the M'Naghten test", which was formulated by the British House of Lords, following the acquittal of a Scotsman called M'Naghten who killed the Private Secretary of the Prime Minister while labouring under the delusion that the unfortunate Secretary was actually the Prime Minister himself.  M'Naghten seems to have suffered from a fixed delusion that the Tory Party were his mortal enemies, and thus deserved to die.  He was acquitted on the evidence of some 9 witnesses, who testified that he was "insane" without much guidance as to what that meant.  As a result, M'Naghten avoided the rope, but spent the rest of his life as, apparently, a model, inoffensive detainee in State mental institutions; first the famous "Bedlam", later the new Broadmoor secure mental institution.  Whether this was preferable to the rope is a moot point (so to speak).

In order to clarify the unsatisfactory situation arising out of "M'Naghten", a committee of learned Law Lords examined the matter, and came up with a test for "insanity", as follows -

"...the jurors ought to be told in all cases that every man is presumed to be sane, and to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for his crimes, until the contrary be proved to their satisfaction; and that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong."

As I said, and in spite of recent reforms in various jurisdictions, this remains the touchstone for Common Law insanity defences.  Defences of "diminished competency" or "diminished responsibility" are, essentially, findings of temporary insanity. 

I understand that some US states have disallowed the admissibility of an insanity defence at trial (though not in relation to competency to stand trial), and that your Supreme Court has declined to overturn them on this point.  Speaking as a lawyer (if an intellectual property lawyer may pronounce on such a subject), I have a bit of a problem with this.  In fact, the problem is a bit fundamental, come to think of it.  Any crime - any crime at all - has two fundamental ingredients; the evil act (actus reus) and the evil intent, or "mind" (mens rea).  If somebody can rebut the presumption of sanity, and prove that "at the time of the committing of the act, [they were] labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act [they were] doing; or, if [they] did know it, that [they] did not know [they were] doing what was wrong", then it would appear that they could not have had the "evil intention" required to complete the crime, on the basis that they could not "reason" in an evil fashion while labouring under such a severe "defect of reason".

Worth noting here that "defect of reason" and "disease of the mind" do not equate to "disease of the brain" - although the two may of course coincide.  As I remarked, these concepts were devised by lawyers, who were attempting to make legal sense of "insanity" as a concept significant in the criminal law.  The essential question - as I understand it - is whether the accused was, from whatever cause, suffering from a "defect of reason" (indefinite or, in the case of "diminished responsibility", temporary), from some definite cause and of such a degree as to render him or her incapable of forming a rational criminal intent to match their objectively criminal action (including, I should say, the "default" intent categories of recklessness or negligence).  If the accused was so disabled - from whatever biological or psychological cause - is it reasonable, and consistent with concepts of justice under the law - to ignore the consequences of such disability in a criminal trial ?  Just asking ...

With very best regards,



Are we responsible for our decisions and behaviors? - Stanislav - Aug 1st 2012

I don't have degree in psychology, but it seems to me, that no one responsible for their behaviour.

Responsibility implies that human beings have free will, but it is now become clear, that we react to a certain environment with mental tools we have available at the moment, and cannot exceed limitation of the experience.

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