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Natalia López Moratalla, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of Navarra, Spain

Science and consciousness

Sat, 26 Feb 2011 08:44:19 +0000 Published in La Rioja, Today, Las Provincias, La Verdad and El Norte de Castilla

I can't do it anymore. I am so sorry for my husband. I cannot cover up a crime". It is very risky for me to comment on these words of Isabel, the wife of the main accused in the death of the girl Mariluz, from the perspective of scientific evidence. Even with the cautions inherent to a human tragedy such as this case, it is worth analyzing her confession as an attempt to understand her deep inner dilemma.

Neuroscience has investigated the neural circuits that process what to do when faced with dilemmas in which human lives are at stake. The data now point to the way in which the natural, and therefore universal, principle of "not doing to others what I do not want for myself" is registered in the human brain. This case seems to show that Isabel possesses that detector that provokes the automatic emotion of pleasure in helping and repugnance for harming. As with any person under normal conditions, this intuition guide, but it does not determine behavior.

It seems reasonable to deduce that she has always felt repulsed by Mariluz's death and has thought that her husband - a "cold" person - is guilty. From her experience of living with him, she possibly knows that the unpleasant feelings of doing harm, which is a sign of caution, leave her unperturbed, although this status may be compatible with knowing very well what she is doing. Perhaps out of fear of him and because she knows she has no moral obligation to tell on her husband, she has suffered and endured for a long time the tension of conflicting emotions, feelings and motivations. Such an extreme status causes deep suffering that can break a person inside until she says "I can't take it anymore".

It is a pity that possibly the hardest moment of Isabel's life has been exposed in public to curiosity, morbid curiosity and, in any case, in a solitude far from the intimacy and respect that her pain deserves. In this case, as in so many others, what science reveals to us and what our own conscience whispers to us seem to coincide in some way.