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Beyond Good And Evil: New Science Casts Light On Morality In The Brain

Harvard brain scientist Joshua Buckholtz has never forgotten a convict he met back when he was an undergrad conducting psychological tests in prisons. The man had beaten another man nearly to death for stepping on his foot in a dance club.

“I wanted to ask him,” he recalls, “‘In what world was the reward of beating this person so severely, for this — to me — minor infraction, worth having terrible food and barbed wire around you?’ ”

But over the years, Buckholtz became convinced that this bad deed was a result of faulty brain processing, perhaps in a circuit called the frontostriatal dopamine system. In an impulsive person’s brain, he says, attention just gets so narrowly focused on an immediate reward that, in effect, the future disappears.

He explains: “If you had asked this person, ‘What will happen if you beat someone nearly to death?’, they will tell you, ‘Oh, I’ll be put away.’ It’s not that these people who commit crimes are dumb, but what happens is, in the moment, that information about costs and consequences can’t get in to their decision-making.”

For two decades, researchers have scanned and analyzed the brains of psychopaths and murderers, but they haven’t pinpointed any single source of evil in the brain. What they’ve found instead, as Buckholtz puts it, “is that our folk concepts of good and evil are much more complicated, and multi-faceted, and riven with uncertainty than we ever thought possible before.”

In other words, so much for the old idea that we have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, and that morality is simply a battle between the two. Using new technology, brain researchers are beginning to tease apart the biology that underlies our decisions to behave badly or do good deeds. They’re even experimenting with ways to alter our judgments of what is right and wrong, and our deep gut feelings of moral conviction.

One thing is certain: We may think in simple terms of “good” and “evil,” but that’s not how it looks in the brain at all.

In past years, as neuroscientists and psychologists began to delve into morality, “Many of us were after a moral center of the brain, or a particular system or circuit that was responsible for all of morality,” says assistant professor Liane Young, who runs The Morality Lab at Boston College. But “it turns out that morality can’t be located in any one area, or even set of areas — that it’s all over, that it colors all aspects of our life, and that’s why it takes up so much space in the brain.”

So there’s no “root of all evil.” Rather, says Buckholtz, “When we do brain studies of moral decision-making, what we are led into is an understanding that there are many different paths to antisocial behavior.”

If we wanted to build antisocial offenders, he says, brain science knows some of the recipe: They’d be hyper-responsive to rewards like drugs, sex and status — and the more immediate, the better. “Another thing we would build in is an inability to maintain representations of consequences and costs,” he says. “We would certainly short-circuit their empathic response to other people. We would absolutely limit their ability to regulate their emotions, particularly negative emotions like anger and fear.”

At his Harvard lab, Buckholtz is currently studying the key ability that long-ago convict lacked — to weigh future consequence against immediate gratification. In one ongoing experiment (see the video above), he’s testing whether he can use electrical stimulation to alter people’s choices. Continue reading