Friday, May 11, 2007

Brain Function and Morality

Yes, there's a link. Consider this as reported in the Wall Street Journal:

In particular, these people had injured an area that links emotion to cognition, located in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex several inches behind the brow. The experiment underscores the pivotal part played by unconscious empathy and emotion in guiding decisions. "When that influence is missing," said USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, "pure reason is set free."
Pure reasoning--isn't that what some hope for? Why wouldn't pure reasoning be a good thing--logic undefiled by those whimsical emotions? Women have been dismissed in the days of yore for being "too emotional". That criticism has been unjustified. Men are just emotional about different things and express it in different ways. They often aren't as nuanced in their expression. They still feel emotional.

So what happens when emotions are derailed by brain damage?

All told, they considered 50 hypothetical moral dilemmas. Their responses were essentially identical to those of neurology patients who had different brain injuries and to healthy volunteers, except when a situation demanded they take one life to save others. For most, the thought of killing an innocent prompts a visceral revulsion, no matter how many other lives weigh in the balance. But if your prefrontal cortex has been impaired in the same small way by stroke or surgery, you would feel no such compunction in sacrificing one life for the good of all. The six patients certainly felt none. Any moral inhibition, whether learned or hereditary, had lost its influence.

The effort to understand the biology of morality is far from academic, said Georgetown University law professor John Mikhail. The search for an ethical balance of harm is central to medical debates on vaccine safety, organ transplants and clinical drug trials. It colors political disputes over embryonic stem-cell research, capital punishment and abortion. It is the essence of much military strategy and the underlying logic of terrorism.

For Harvard neuroscientist Marc Hauser, the moral-dilemma experiment is evidence the brain may be hard-wired for morality. Most moral intuitions, he said, are unconscious, involuntary and universal. To test the idea, he gathered data from thousands of people in hundreds of countries, all of whom display a remarkable unanimity in their basic moral choices. A shared innate capacity for morality may be responsible, he concluded.

I'm curious about this phenomenon. I have friends who have been brain injured and have noticed their obtuseness socially. They don't seem to recognize when they hurt other people's feelings. And they are very pedantic. Those affected acknowledge that they have changed, but they also don't seem to recognize their own change.

Additionally, I feel that my own personality, and perhaps morality, too, has changed since enduring chronic stress. I feel sensitized to suffering, but also feel the need to shut it out. I wonder if war vets feel this way, too.

There is a law in health that chiropractors especially repeat often: Structure affects function and function affects structure. I don't see why it wouldn't be true with the brain.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Simon Lang" is the pen name of one Darlene Hartman, who wrote several SF novels (Trek-derived space opera) under that name. What Dr Melissa has described --

Pure reasoning--isn't that what some hope for? Why wouldn't pure reasoning be a good thing--logic undefiled by those whimsical emotions?

-- is the basis for the series' main bad-guy race, the Krail.

The Krail are totally dispassionate, totally rational and reasonable -- and their society is like something out of 1984. Brutal slavery ("The most cost-effective utilization of labor units"), torture ("Reinforcing the learning process"), total deceit ("effective and necessary"), eugenic genocide ("culling defective genes"), all done with total intellectual rationality (and rationalization) -- "Only a five-point-eight gigadeath situation; insignificant".