Thursday, March 22, 2007

Neurobiological basis of morality?

Following up on this post from two days ago: The latest issue of Nature has a paper (abstract, via Swarup) by Michael Koenigs and coworkers with some fascinating results. Here's an extract from a NYTimes story on it:

Damage to an area of the brain behind the forehead, inches behind the eyes, transforms the way people make moral judgments in life-or-death situations, scientists reported yesterday. In a new study, people with this rare injury expressed increased willingness to kill or harm another person if doing so would save others’ lives.

The findings are the most direct evidence that humans’ native revulsion to hurting others relies on a part of neural anatomy, one that evolved before the higher brain regions responsible for analysis and planning.


  1. Anonymous said...

    abi: here might be the appropriate forum for a debate we often have in psychology - what does neuroscience tell us that basic psychology can't? fMRI experiments (as contrasted with psych experiments) are hard to do and terrifically expensive. In addition, they are hardly reliable and most often correlational. However, people seem much more convinced about fMRI results than any psych experiment results.

    Do you think there might be processes that fMRI addresses that we can't get through usual psych processes like self-report etc?


  2. Tabula Rasa said...

    i fall on the side that says fmri technology probably hasn't advanced far enough yet to tell us stuff we don't already know. a couple of years ago i attended the inaugural meeting of the neuroeconomics group in my university. a grad student presented a review paper that described experiments showing that people who felt 'hope' had different areas of their brain light up than people who felt 'fear'. part of the crowd went "oooh" but the few of us with psych training just looked at each other. shakespeare could have told you that.

    just as n! says, somehow the fact that fmri reports show different parts of the brain light up make them appear more scientific (even though they're actually correlational). further, a lot of the studies are conducted using subjects with very obviously damaged brains (e.g., a severed corpus callosum). while that allows for a nice controlled experiments at one level, the level is still very macro. i think two things are required for neuroscience to really start telling us stuff we don't know. (1) the teams doing the research should be highly familiar with the theory of both fields - psychology and neuroscience, and (2) the technology should advance to such a stage that it can identify and therefore tease apart people at much finer levels of the psychological grain. by this i mean, for example, people who cannot think in the distant future versus people who cannot think in the near future.

  3. gaddeswarup said...

    Ano and TR,
    Can you pl. give some references tp psych. experiments? Thanks.

  4. Anonymous said...

    umm Gaddeswarup, I'll ask TR to take the stage on this one, seeing as I'm only a grad student and he's actually a professor (and going by your vita, TR, a pretty successful one - will mail you offline for tips and insider secrets on publication productivity). But any particular area that you might be interested in because psych is just huge! the journal I like to read for fun is "Psychological Science". The articles are short (I believe they have a word limit) and its aimed at a broader audience so the articles are often accused of not being "academic" i.e. detailed enough. But they also make for good reading. TR, any other references? (besides, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of course!).

    TR, I totally agree with your viewpoint on fMRI though I must admit that I didn't quite understand the example of where fMRI might work to understand myopia.

    Abi, TR, Swarup, did you read the NY Times article "The Brain on the Stand"? Fascinating stuff on neuroscience and applications to the law. Wondered what you thought of that. We had a long discussion in our Social Cognition class.


  5. gaddeswarup said...

    n!, TR, and Abi,
    Actually mine is not a very serious enquiry. I am quite happy with the fuzzy understanding I have from De Waal and Sarah Hrdy boks ( that we have both competetion and empathy in our make up). I just enquired since the topic came up and it is easier learn when some others are talking about it. Please do not go out of your way to find references.

  6. Tabula Rasa said...

    well, like n! said, there are journals one can look at, but there's so much stuff out there it's hard to sift out the interesting bits. i think your strategy of reading the books is a better way to get to the good stuff, although at the cost of a few years lead time (which shouldn't really matter).

    off the top of my head, the books i'd recommend are --

    - how we know it isn't so, by tom gilovich
    - the person and the situation, be lee ross and richard nisbett
    - self-theories, by carol dweck (abi featured her work in a post a while back)
    - white bears and other unwanted thoughts, by daniel wegner
    - dan gilbert's recent book -- which i haven't read by he's a great researcher and he writes like a dream so it definitely should be worth the while.

    that myopia thing was just an example -- today we can show at a macro level that people with certain parts of the brain damaged cannot feel certain emotions. this is done essentially using a simple single-factor experiment with two levels: damaged brains vs. normal brains. in the future, we might be able to go down into finer levels to determine what exactly causes myopia or hyperbolic disounting, maybe by showing that even within normal brains, certain triggers make people behave more or less myopically.

    i missed the nytimes article -- when did it come out? perhaps i was in cambodia.

    and easy on the passing shots, please :-D

  7. Anonymous said...

    I'm also currently reading "Breakdown of Will" by George Ainslie which I find really interesting, though its in a "narrower" domain of self-control.

    I love the Samual Butler quote he has there "If the headache would only precede the intoxication, alcoholism would be a virtue".

    TR: passing shots? What, me? Really? btw, the Brain on the Stand Article is sadly in the Times Archive now. I googled and found a link though which seemed to contain the entire article, Hope it works.