Know the Science behind Moral Judgments Made by Your Brain

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Last Updated: Oct 31, 2016

How Brain Makes Moral Judgments

Studies are underway to understand the neuroscience of morality and the brain networks that get involved when making such decisions, and the cause for differences among individuals in judgments. Such topics are conducted using small samples of people through functional magnetic resonance imaging with patterns emerging as more findings comes out.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, professor of practical ethics at Duke University said that the field is waiting for a big revolution sometime soon.

Moral Network

There are specific network of regions in the brain that are involved in the mediation of moral judgment, according to scientists. Some studies have confirmed that these areas are crucial in processing information about moral decisions including a brain part known as the ventral prefrontal cortex.

Several researchers suggest that the brain areas involved with moral judgment overlap with “default mode network,” which is involved in our “baseline” state of being awake but at rest.

Scientist have focused their studies on people whose behavior suggest their relevant neural inactivity circuitry could be damaged in an effort to understand which brain networks are important for moral judgments.

Damage in Psychopaths

Scientist find psychopaths, particularly those who are convicted criminals, interesting in exploring moral judgment.

Sinnott-Armstrong said they are not scared of punishment, don’t feel empathy towards other people, fails to respect the authorities, and so there is nothing to stop them from doing what other people will find wrong.

Jesus Pujol of the Hospital de Mar, Barcelona, Spain, and colleagues conducted a study which was published in 2012 to analyze how psychopaths’ brain responses to moral dilemmas might compare with normal individuals.

They made use of functional magnetic resonance imaging on 22 criminal psychopathic men and 22 healthy non-offender males. They observed that most participants gave similar responses to moral dilemmas used in the research, in both the groups.

However there were differences in the brain with the psychopaths tending to show less activation in the medial frontal and posterior cingulate cortices in response to moral dilemmas. There were also impairments in the connections between some brain regions responsible for morality and other areas.

In a recent publication this month in the journal Biology Psychiatry, Pujol’s group found weakened connections in psychopaths’ brain which may affect their moral functioning. Notably, they observed that structures associated with emotion had reduced connectivity to prefrontal areas, and enhanced connectivity within an area linked to cognition.

These findings suggest that in criminal psychopaths’ the brain inadequately use emotional data to control behavioral responses.

Manipulation of judgment

By directly intervening in brain processes, researchers have shown that it is possible to manipulate moral judgment. Saxe, the senior author on a 2010 study in the Journal Proceeding of National Academy of Sciences, conducted a study using noninvasive technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to alter neurons activities in the brain region.

The researchers found that TMS to the right temporoparietal junction was linked with distinct response patterns which biased the judgment, compared to those who received TMS in other brain regions or no TMS at all.

More Discoveries Underway

Current studies tend to focus more on how the brain respond to one type of moral question, condition in which a hypothetical person cause harm in some way, according to Sinnott-Armstrong.

However, there are more areas for exploration including disloyalty, sexual misconducts, and procedural injustices. Saxe admits that there is still more to be done and that they are doing in the labs.

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