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Studying Harmful Intent and How The Human Brain Constructs Its Morality


A new study from MIT neuroscientists suggests that our ability to respond appropriately to intended harms -- that is, with outrage toward the perpetrator -- is seated in a brain region associated with regulating emotions.

Patients with damage to this brain area, known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), are unable to conjure a normal emotional response to hypothetical situations in which a person tries, but fails, to kill another person. Therefore, they judge the situation based only on the outcome, and do not hold the attempted murderer morally responsible.

The finding offers a new piece to the puzzle of how the human brain constructs morality, says Liane Young, a postdoctoral associate in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and lead author of a paper describing the findings in the March 25 issue of the journal Neuron.

"We're slowly chipping away at the structure of morality," says Young. "We're not the first to show that emotions matter for morality, but this is a more precise look at how emotions matter."

How they did it: Working with researchers at the University of Southern California, led by Antonio Damasio, Young studied a group of nine patients with damage (caused by aneurisms or tumors) to the VMPC, a plum-sized area located behind and above the eyes.

Such patients have difficulty processing social emotions such as empathy or embarrassment, but "they have a perfectly intact capacity for reasoning and other cognitive functions," says Young.

The researchers gave the subjects a series of 24 hypothetical scenarios and asked for their reactions. The scenarios of most interest to the researchers were ones featuring a mismatch between the person's intention and the outcome -- either failed attempts to harm or accidental harms.

When confronted with failed attempts to harm, the patients had no problems understanding the perpetrator's intentions, but they failed to hold them morally responsible. The patients even judged attempted harms as more permissible than accidental harms (such as accidentally poisoning someone) -- a reversal of the pattern seen in normal adults.

"They can process what people are thinking and their intentions, but they just don't respond emotionally to that information," says Young. "They can read about a murder attempt and judge it as morally permissible because no harm was done."

This supports the idea that making moral judgments requires at least two processes -- a logical assessment of the intention, and an emotional reaction to it. The study also supports the theory that the emotional component is seated in the VMPC.

Next steps: Young hopes to study patients who incurred damage to the VMPC when they were younger, to see if they have the same impaired judgment. She also plans to study patient reactions to situations where the harmful attempts may be directed at the patient and therefore are more personal.



March 25, 2010
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