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The Neurology of Morality
March 29, 2010 4:41 PM   Subscribe

Researchers at MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences have identified two "morality centers" of the brain. In two separate experiments, they have shown a correlation between a particular part of the brain and the ability to make moral jusgments related to intent to commit a crime. In one experiment, patients with brain damage in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of the brain don't consider hypothetical perpetrators to be morally responsible for their actions. In another experiment (noted on NPR today) the researchers showed that they could switch off the moral judgment function by applying a magnetic field to the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ) of the brain. The TPJ has also been implicated in "out of body experiences", both in cases of brain damage and by artificially stimulating the area.
posted by darkstar (32 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Has anybody got a trans-cranial magnetic stimulator they'd let me borrow for a bit?
posted by Jon_Evil at 5:06 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Don't learn about science from press releases. Here's the article (full text pdf).
posted by demiurge at 5:17 PM on March 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


TPJ is implicated in all kinds of things, not just moral decision making.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:22 PM on March 29, 2010


The abstract from the Neuron article:
Moral judgments, whether delivered in ordinary experience or in the courtroom, depend on our ability to infer intentions. We forgive unintentional or accidental harms and condemn failed attempts to harm. Prior work demonstrates that patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) deliver abnormal judgments in response to moral dilemmas and that these patients are especially impaired in triggering emotional responses to inferred or abstract events (e.g., intentions), as opposed to real or actual outcomes. We therefore predicted that VMPC patients would deliver abnormal moral judgments of harmful intentions in the absence of harmful outcomes, as in failed attempts to harm. This prediction was confirmed in the current study: VMPC patients judged attempted harms, including attempted murder, as more morally permissible relative to controls. These results highlight the critical role of the VMPC in processing harmful intent for moral judgment.
posted by darkstar at 5:24 PM on March 29, 2010


Jeez, I hope Magneto doesn't hear about this. He'll be even more dangerous to humanity!
posted by MegoSteve at 5:26 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sorry, hit post too soon

TPJ is thought to be critical for Theory of Mind, although it also plays a role in divided attention tasks. What exactly it's doing is still an open question, and a hotly contested one at that. It sure as hell is implicated in more than that NPR write up might lead one to believe though.

Don't learn about science from press releases.

This cannot be stated strongly enough.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 5:28 PM on March 29, 2010


Identifying functions by lobe seems (to my non-scientist mind) strangely non-specific. Thinking? Oh that's done on this massive thing over here. Psychosis? Oh, that's the other giant lobe.
posted by basicchannel at 5:31 PM on March 29, 2010


Oh, nevermind. TPJ is pretty specific. I need to slow down and borrow Jon_Evil's trans-cranial magnetic stimulator.
posted by basicchannel at 5:34 PM on March 29, 2010


TPJ is implicated in all kinds of things, not just moral decision making.

Also true of VMPFC.
posted by advil at 6:12 PM on March 29, 2010



Jeez, I hope Magneto doesn't hear about this. He'll be even more dangerous to humanity!


Was there any hand-waving for why Magento didn't just fuck with people's livers all the time?
posted by The Whelk at 6:37 PM on March 29, 2010


Wait - you;re saying I could invent a CRIME HAT? Awesome!
posted by Artw at 6:47 PM on March 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


Elisabeth Röhm totally made this discovery on an episode of The Mentalist.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:07 PM on March 29, 2010


Wait - you;re saying I could invent a CRIME HAT? Awesome!

It's been done.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:24 PM on March 29, 2010


I predict the outcome of all of this research will be some kind of morality chip we will embed in the brains of criminals. Also droogs will become a popular slang term. And by criminals I mean everyone. Finally some guy at the CIA or Fox news or someplace will have a master control chip capable of turning up or down your moral outrage. Oh and I almost forgot actually your Blackberry probably does this already, I mean if it can buzz my computer speakers; lord only knows what it is doing to your brain. Actually scratch the whole bit about moral outrage, the magnets will probably just make you want to buy a new phone and check email more often.
posted by humanfont at 7:30 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


A correlation, you say? So, does neural activity in the TPJ cause moral judgments? Or do moral judgments cause the TPJ to be active? Or is some unmeasured third variable causing both moral judgments and TPJ activity?

What is it exactly that we now know about morality that we didn't know before?
posted by noahpoah at 7:48 PM on March 29, 2010


Also true of VMPFC.

Very much so. The notion that vmPFC is specialized for a single function, however, isn't really in vogue in any circles with which I'm familiar. TPJ, on the other hand, is argued by some to be specialized only for theory of mind or related functions, and the controversy over what TPJ does is a hot one. To see the idea that TPJ is for a single specialized function (and one other than the oft cited ToM) implied by a press release is infuriating on a number of levels.

vmPFC is, to me, a lot more interesting. It seems especially important for self-relevant processing, and as you travel along the cortical midline curving around the corpus callosum from the dorsal -> medial (or the oh so concise "anterior-rostral medial PFC") -> ventral aspects, there seems to be a gradient of some could be viewed as a progression from processes primarily concerning distant, unfamiliar other -> distant, familiar other -> acquaintance -> close other -> self -> self in specialized domains (areas in which you have expertise, your "selfiest self" if you like). This is all speculative though, as no studies have yet been carried out with tight controls designed to elucidate this potential spectrum. This is one of the major themes I intend to explore in my own work.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:52 PM on March 29, 2010


Was there any hand-waving for why Magento didn't just fuck with people's livers all the time?

Well, he never seemed unnecessarily malicious to me (at least not in later years, when the level of detail about the physics of his powers increased along with his complexity as a character).

I reckon he didn't use TMS (or, in his case, more focal electromagnetic disruptions of neural activity) because the authors didn't know that shit could even be done. Neither did scientists, till recently.

A correlation, you say? So, does neural activity in the TPJ cause moral judgments? Or do moral judgments cause the TPJ to be active? Or is some unmeasured third variable causing both moral judgments and TPJ activity?

Yep, you've cracked it! Correlation is not causation, you say? Shit, lets just chuck the last twenty or thirty years of fMRI research. All that shit is correlational.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 7:56 PM on March 29, 2010


New tech for Precrime.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:03 PM on March 29, 2010


To see the idea that TPJ is for a single specialized function (and one other than the oft cited ToM) implied by a press release is infuriating on a number of levels.

Am I missing something here? I'm really at a loss to see where you read this in the press release. The only place I see where they come even close is this:
Young and her colleagues used a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, to temporarily decrease activity in an area of the brain called the right temporoparietal junction. It's near the surface of the brain, above and behind the right ear, and it seems to helps us decipher another person's beliefs.
But that in no way can be represented as arguing for a "single specialized function" for that part of the brain. Rather, these two press releases seem to fairly accurately represent the research they reference.
posted by darkstar at 8:08 PM on March 29, 2010


TPJ, on the other hand, is argued by some to be specialized only for theory of mind or related functions

You've used the expression "theory of mind" twice now. What do you mean by it exactly? Consciousness? Strong AI? Something else?
posted by GeckoDundee at 8:09 PM on March 29, 2010


At last, an explanation! Conclusive evidence: when you talk on your cell phone, you become an asshole because your moral judgement is impaired!

This may also explain why we reflexively do not care for those who choose to wear bluetooth earpieces at all times. Except for me, when I do that.
posted by mwhybark at 9:11 PM on March 29, 2010


Here's Sean Carroll's response to Harris's Response.
There is a weird sort of backwards-logic that gets deployed at this juncture: “if you don’t believe that morals are objectively true, you can’t condemn the morality of the Taliban.” Why not? Watch me: “the morality of the Taliban is loathsome and should be resisted.” See? I did it!
Vaguely self-linky in the sense that I'm participating in the comments.
posted by Anything at 9:30 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


You've used the expression "theory of mind" twice now. What do you mean by it exactly? Consciousness? Strong AI? Something else?

Not to speak for someone else, but "theory of mind" usually means the ability to recognize that other people (and animals, etc.) have minds of their own through which they filter information about the outside world.

Children typically don't develop ToM until they reach a certain developmental stage.

Usually you can tell they've developed it because they begin to recognize that people sometimes hold false beliefs about the world around them. (For example: After developing ToM, a child begins to understand that if another person has been tricked into thinking an empty box still has candy in it, even though the child knows the candy isn't there, the other person will still look for the candy in the box. Before we develop ToM, we just assume everybody else sees the world exactly as we do and that everyone shares access to the same information about the world.)

Kids at this stage also often begin to display intentionally deceptive behaviors for the first time.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:34 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah, ok. The ability to form a personal theory of minds. That makes sense, thanks.
posted by GeckoDundee at 9:48 PM on March 29, 2010


Uh, sorry. Wrong morality thread
posted by Anything at 9:50 PM on March 29, 2010


Anything: "Uh, sorry. Wrong morality thread"

Dude, that is SO WRONG!

I'm sure it was just the magnets talking.
posted by mwhybark at 9:53 PM on March 29, 2010


saulgoodman's explanation is a solid one from my perspective.

Sorry I got reactionary about the ole temporo-parietal junction.

As to TMS, it is a strange experience. I got zapped in the parietal lobe, in an area thought to be related to visual integration. It temporarily made my visual perception shift in a strange way I cannot accurately describe but can only compare to the visual experience under the influence of serotongergic psychedelics.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:24 PM on March 29, 2010


I need to create a filter that automatically prevents my browser from displaying any press release that talks about "X centers" in the brain, along with "gene for X". If I hurt my elbow, I might be temporarily unable to play tennis; does that mean that the elbow is the "tennis center" of the body?

I wish fMRI researchers across domains would talk to each other more often. It's a bit depressing when you read two different papers claiming that the same area is responsible for both Theory of Mind and, say, working memory for smells. (Hypothetical but representative example.) We should be trying to figure out what that brain area is doing, not how to paste our preconceived notions of what human cognition consists of onto the brain.

Also, I wish brain imaging researchers would focus on pinning down the low-level stuff before moving on to morality and theory of mind, since I'd bet good money that some of these areas that are supposedly the substrates of higher thought just contain motor and perceptual maps.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:52 PM on March 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


For example, the right temporo-parietal junction appears be involved in more prosaic attentional reorienting, in addition to being the supposed seat of Theory of Mind and being involved in out of body experiences--quite a variety of roles for a single brain region.

http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/18/2/262
posted by IjonTichy at 12:24 AM on March 30, 2010


Er, I mean, here's the article.
posted by IjonTichy at 12:25 AM on March 30, 2010


Yep, you've cracked it! Correlation is not causation, you say? Shit, lets just chuck the last twenty or thirty years of fMRI research. All that shit is correlational.

Let's say your going to operate on someone's brain, and you want to make sure you don't damage areas important for linguistic processing. In this case, it makes good sense to understand where such processing takes place in the brain.

For general understanding of cognition, though, it's not always so clear to me what the value of neural imaging is? I'm won't claim that it has no value in general, since I've read some cognitive neuroscience papers that I thought had value, but didn't we already know that people use their brains when making moral judgments? And aren't there powerful behavioral methods for studying how people make moral judgments?

What exactly is the value in knowing that at least one part of our brains that we use for moral judgments seems to be the TPJ? And is the (abstract scientific) value of such knowledge worth the cost of the machinery?

I'm perfectly happy for this to be short-sightedness and lack of imagination on my part. Maybe I'm not thinking about it the right way, but I usually feel like way too much of cognitive neuroscience is disturbingly close to high-tech phrenology.
posted by noahpoah at 4:17 AM on March 30, 2010


I usually feel like way too much of cognitive neuroscience is disturbingly close to high-tech phrenology.

This claim gets made a lot. There is a lot of bad neuroimaging work out there, any given its extremely high price tag, this is rightfully disturbing. However, fMRI is the best way we have right now for understanding how the human brain functions in a non-invasive way. On its own, it is not sufficient for unraveling the mysteries of the brain, but in conjunction with behavioral research and findings based on more precise techniques (like single cell recordings), it is a powerful tool for enhancing our understanding of neural function. Why do we want to enhance such an understanding? There are plenty of reasons out there, but the one that drives me personally is curiosity, plain and simple.

By the way, all that behavioral research on moral judgment? It's correlational.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:15 PM on March 30, 2010


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