On Compassion, Forgiveness and the Brain

daenerys drogon

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Have you ever been extremely angry with somebody that you imagined you were Daenerys riding Drogon which was breathing fire on to your enemies?

(Fortunately for me, I have not been that angry with any one person in a long time, but only with a group of people terrorizing my beautiful island of Mindanao, oh yeah. I was so angry that in my imagination, I didn’t even have to be Daenerys. I was happy just to be Drogon!)

Don’t you find it exhausting when you dislike this person so much, but this person just can’t disappear from your life? You hear people talking about him/her, and it’s worse when he/she is doing so well while you aren’t?

For us, humans, anger towards somebody is most often accompanied by its best friend, jealousy. Those two are perhaps the ugliest, meanest pair ever. They will keep you awake at night, make you lose your appetite, then your energy.

If you’re smart or meet the right people who can help you get rid of that ugly pair, then lucky you. If not, that pair will ruin your life.

A few months ago, I started reading Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars. For some reason I could not finish reading it, but a couple of weeks ago I picked it up again and read the chapter called “A Surgeon’s Life,” which is about Dr. Carl Bennett (a pseudonym), a surgeon who has Tourette’s Syndrome.

This chapter was truly an eye-opener for me, and I’m writing about this because I am hoping this can somehow also make my readers re-evaluate how we judge our fellow human beings.

Dr. Bennett is highly respected by his colleagues and patients, and despite his tics, is able to perform surgery efficiently as if he didn’t have Tourette’s at all. He said the outward expressions of his Tourette’s that most people see are not the worst problems he has to face. The real ones are those within — panic and rage. In his words,

                “It’s not gentle….You can see it as whimsical, funny — be tempted to romanticize it —   but Tourette’s comes from deep down in the nervous system and the unconscious. It taps    into the oldest, strongest feelings we have. Tourette’s is like an epilepsy in the  subcortex.; when it takes over, there’s just a thin line of control, a thin line of cortex,  between you and it, between you and that raging storm, the blind force of the subcortex.     One can see the charming things, the funny things, the creative side of Tourette’s, but there’s also that dark side. You have to fight it all your life.”

At home, Dr. Bennett can give expression to this rage, not directed at people but at inanimate objects around him. His wall, his refrigerator are witnesses to this rage. One wall is covered with knife marks.

Scary? I find this very sad. That a human being who does not want to be violent CANNOT CHOOSE not to be violent.

Dr. Bennett is fortunate enough to have a family that understands and accepts him and helps him deal with all of these. But not everyone is as fortunate as Dr. Bennett. I wonder how many people out there have undiagnosed neurological disorders, committing crimes which they could not help doing? They don’t even know why they are doing it, or perhaps they think they know why they are doing it; but do they really?

I wonder if a brain scan is required of every criminal, how many of these people we would find to have neurological disorders?

This question led me to think how the human brain is very much like a computer. Just as computers have software-related problems such as viruses and bugs, the human brain can have chemical imbalance or viral infections. And just like computers that can have hardware-related problems such as overheating, a malfunctioning chip or a motherboard failure, our brain can also suffer from head or brain injuries.

When your computer is defective, do you try to save it or do you discard it, right away?

It seems computers are luckier than humans because we can easily see that our computer has a problem, and our initial reaction is to find out what caused it and how to fix it.

But with a human being, if his brain has a problem but it’s undiagnosed, we right away judge the person according to his actions without asking whether he has control over his actions or not.

What is worse is we label these people as crazy, nuts, wacko, lunatic, deranged, etc. without even knowing what caused them to become such people. Perhaps  you have heard or read about people who were known to be gentle or kind, and all of a sudden murdered somebody. People express shock or disbelief, saying it was totally out of character.

Here are some ways people can suddenly change:

Trauma to the brain can cause a drastic change in personality. 

Alcohol and drugs (medications) can change a person’s personality. 

Viral infections in the brain can cause a change in personality. 

Certain foods and food  ingredients like MSG can affect your behavior. 

Now, going back to my first question: Have you ever been extremely angry with somebody that you imagined you were Daenerys riding Drogon which was breathing fire on to your enemies?

If you have or you still are extremely angry with somebody, ask yourself whether it’s possible this person has a hardware or software-related problem in his brain, and perhaps he has no control over some of his thoughts and actions, just like, sometimes, you have no control over some of your own thoughts and actions.

And when you realize that we are all in the same boat, then you would hopefully understand your fellow human being, and perhaps forgiving will be a little bit easier (but, of course, be smart about it!)

I wonder if that is what prompted Jesus to utter these words when he was crucified: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

When he said those words, He became the epitome of compassion and forgiveness.



A couple of years ago a friend and I talked about whether human beings have free will or not. Back then I wasn’t really convinced that we don’t, but mostly because I did not have the time to think about it and read about it more. But now I think my friend may be on to something. 🙂 He wrote a book called Without Free Will. It’s well-written and thought-provoking. Check it out.

9 thoughts on “On Compassion, Forgiveness and the Brain

  1. Pingback: The brain and the concept of evil | Thoughts on Life

  2. Pingback: On Reality | Thoughts on Life

  3. It seems D.S. Sampson’s perspective on free will boils down to his idea that if our choices and influences are affected by “external factors”, then that means that our will is not our own, but the ‘effect’ portion of “cause and effect”. I don’t agree with this at all. I believe external factors influence our feelings and decisions, and based on our interpretation of the events, stimuli, and influences occurring in our daily life, we make our decisions. Our choices are our own to make, no one else tells us to do A or B. We do. If that were not the case, I would completely agree that we have no free will, and that we are, in effect, “puppets on a string”. But the thing is, we aren’t puppets on a string, and we do have a choice. For those with neurological disorders that congruently affect their ability to perceive others and the things surrounding them, surely their thought processes and intuitions are inhibited. Choice is always ours to begin with, and perhaps later it is manipulated or redirected by the effects of a disorder. Therefore, choice and free will to make those choices are originally of our own accord, and cannot be placed on someone or something else. We must acknowledge that whatever perceptions come into our immediate awareness, is filtered through the system (The “hard drive”) of our minds (Where our conscience, you might say, resides), and it is there that the choice and the will to implement a choice is originated. If that is so, then the argument I am placing is that our free will is indeed, ours, and that it would require someone or something else to filter our minds for us, and, concordantly, to decide for us what we would do on behalf of our reactions in order to claim that free will is no longer ours. If we had no free will, we would have no control over the way we perceive the way incidences that hurt us or make us feel good/loved, would we? Each person is unique in their ability to experience their life, and so each person is the “one in charge” of what affects them in what way, and why. And for each person, their reactions to what they perceive is unique to their perception of their reality. Their reactions are their own, their actions based on the perceptions they live in their body and mind is their own. What others see them doing in response to their life is their own. That is free will.
    Now, in regards to your post on being angry towards another, I will say I agree that it is helpful to understand that there is a reason for another person’s failings and hurtful words. To understand another’s reasons for hurtful actions certainly does pave a way towards mitigating our own anger and hurt, but that is not saying, “They had no free will, no choice in the matter, so I forgive them.” It’s saying, “They had a reason for which, at the time, I did not know, but if I had been them and experiencing what they had experienced at the time they hurt me, I may understand why they would have done such a thing in response to their perception of pain– because perhaps I would have reacted similarly under similar circumstances.” In this way, we use understanding to lesson the intensity of degree of anger towards that person, and acceptance from that understanding. But it is nothing about taking away their ability to choose to act and express themselves the way they do. It is simply to acknowledge they, too, are human, and the they made decisions that, for them, made sense because they were affected in a way we did not understand. It is not dismissal, it is forgiveness based on the understanding that each person reacts according to their reality, and we each live only in our own realities, able to recognize others’ realities by relating them to our own (Empathy).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi again, Lance. Now that I’ve had coffee I can think again. 😉

      You said: “If we had no free will, we would have no control over the way we perceive the way incidences that hurt us or make us feel good/loved, would we? Each person is unique in their ability to experience their life, and so each person is the “one in charge” of what affects them in what way, and why. And for each person, their reactions to what they perceive is unique to their perception of their reality. Their reactions are their own, their actions based on the perceptions they live in their body and mind is their own. What others see them doing in response to their life is their own. That is free will.”

      I say: we have no control over the way we perceive ANYTHING. We perceive everything based on how we are built, and like you said, each person is unique. Our perceptions are based on the capacity/ability of our senses. We experience things differently, but because of being taught since childhood how to see things and feel things and call things, we form our own perceptions. Seeing a tree as green does not necessarily mean it truly is green. From a baby’s eyes it probably has no color. But as a baby grows and his senses develop, and he is taught the color of a tree, it becomes green to his eyes. How about a person who is colorblind from birth?

      To me, we do not have free will because we never had the choice as to ,and no control over how our senses can best serve us. We are dependent on our senses.

      I am sorry, I cannot fully articulate what I want to say. I’ve been reading Dr. Oliver Sacks books, and although he did not write about free will in the books that I’ve read, but the more I read about the brain the more I am convinced we are puppets in a string. But I don’t know who the puppeteer is. Or if there is even one. There should be one. Hmm.

      Thanks again, Lance, for taking time to share your thoughts on this. I’m honored. 🙂


      • Therese,
        Thank you for writing back and for being open about your thoughts on this with me. I hear what you’re saying. I also believe, like you, that we have no control over the way we perceive anything. We cannot tell our brain to perceive, through our body, that it hurts when we get pricked by a pin— it just HURTS. As infants, we are told colors the way our parents (Or other peers) see them, and we assume they are right because of familial trust. Should we say that, because our parents told us what color the tree was, that that takes away our control over the “real color” of the tree? Are we going a little too far with “control of perception” and its correlation to free will? Free will is the ability to choose what we will, as we will, when we will. Free will can tell you not to believe someone, or to trust them. Conscience separates right from wrong, and our free will gives us the ability to choose one or the other. Our perceptions, our senses– they are out of our control. Our body works the way it was designed, like you said. Our free will, however, is unique to each and every person, individually. You can choose to believe trees are blue when you grow older if you wish— or claim, through colorblindness, that nothing even has a color. This would not be false to someone incapable of perceiving color through a lack of sense of sight. This would not make someone wrong who sees a tree as green who has a viable sense of sight. However, this is perception, not choice. Do we choose to believe what our senses tell us? Is that a choice? Of course! But, is that not a question of whether or not we trust ourselves? And how is trust in the self built? How do we know we trust ourselves enough to use free will in a way that we can consider “good” or “right”? The point, of course, is that the choice is OURS. That IS free will. Perception occurs, choice follows. You don’t tell your eyes to see the tree (Color or not), your eyes simply SEE it. You can believe it’s green, or deny it. To each their own. But free will is everyone to themselves. You can’t tell me what to believe, because I can choose to believe you’re wrong. That is my free will against yours. You can do the same. Perception first, free will separate. Perception comes inside, free will comes out of us. You can’t control your brain, but you control what you do after your brain processes the information you involuntarily take in based on your physical and physiological experience.
        I’m also honored, Therese, that you would have me share my thoughts with you, and that we can have such an amicable conversation about such interesting concepts. Thank YOU, for that. Hope you’re having a wonderful weekend! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Lance, I would very much like to discuss this further, but it’s a busy week, and I need time to organize my thoughts (I’m poor at this!). But I’ll get back to you on this one. Thanks again so much for discussing this with me. Have a good week! 🙂


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