The "My Brain Crashed" Excuse

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticAug 5, 2009 4:30 AM


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An Australian shock-jock is in trouble after attaching a 14 year old girl to a lie detector and getting her mom to ask her about her sex life. Specifically, whether she was a virgin. Live on air.

The girl revealed that she had indeed had sex, at the age of 12 - when she had been raped. Stunned silence followed. Broken when the shock-jock asked, in eight words which have probably cost him his career:

"Right ... is that the only experience you've had?"

A 14 yearold girlhad just revealed that she had been raped, on live radio, and he asked her about the rest of her sex life (listen). Outrage followed, obviously. But what's more interesting is what he later wrote in his defence: (my emphasis)

" the second question the girl said she had been raped when she was 12. We were stunned. To tell you the truth I was floundering around, signalling to the producers and Jackie – down the camera – indicating that we had to get it off air.

I didn’t realise I had said “Have you had any other experiences?”

At the same time I was speaking I was signalling to Jackie that we had to terminate the segment. I went into a slight panic as how to get the thing off the air and I was more focused on making that happen than on what I said."

This is what we might call the "My Brain Crashed" excuse. His explanation for his actions was that the stress of the situation put him into a state of panic such that he said something without being aware of it. Ergo, he was not responsible for it. It's like pleading insanity

when accused of a crime. Don't blame me - my mind did it, not me.

Plenty of other public figures have used this excuse, but my favorite is Neale Donald Walsh. Walsh writes books which he claims are records of his conversations with God. If so God is a moron, but, millions of people love them. He used to write a blog for religion site BeliefNet. He was fired last Christmas, however, after posting a mawkish "inspirational" seasonal story about a little girl which turned out to have been plagiarized word-for-word from another author's work. The story was presented as an anecdote about something that Walsh had personally experienced.

The plagiarism was undeniable, but Walsh claimed it wasn't his fault, because -

“All I can say now — because I am truly mystified and taken aback by this — is that someone must have sent it to me over the Internet ten years or so ago,” Mr. Walsch wrote. “Finding it utterly charming ... I must have clipped and pasted it into my file of ‘stories to tell that have a message I want to share.’ I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized ... and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience.”

In a telephone interview, Mr. Walsch, 65, ... said he had been retelling the anecdote in public as his own for years. “I am chagrined and astonished that my mind could play such a trick on me,” he said.

Don't blame him - his mind did it.

"My Brain Crashes" excuses seem implausible. But I don't think they are really meant to believed. The point is that theycould be true, however unlikely that seems. We can prove that someone did a certain thing at a certain time, but the one thing no-one can prove is that they were concious of it. So claiming to have suffered a freak mental accident is the only way of avoiding admitting that you've done something that everyone knows you've done.

Neale Donald Walsh is a plagiarist. But he is not a confessed plagiarist, and in a strange way, this allows him to retain a shred of dignity. It means he can avoid apologizing. Walsh is obviously a crook, and he knows that we know it. But he wants to avoid being a crook who's also throwing himself at the mercy of the public and begging for forgiveness. Or to put it another way, he's a dick, but he wants to avoid also being a dork.

Is there any chance that these two excuses could actually be true? Stranger things have happened. Psychologists report that normal people can be quite easily made to remember things that didn't really happen, at least under laboratory conditions (ref). And that many things happen in our heads that we are unconcious of is almost an axiom of psychology (ref). But it seems awfully convenient. Ultimately, the only people who know the truth are the perpetrators.

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