(NaturalNews) Scientists at the University of Chicago have used brain scans to gain a new level of understanding into the way that human beings make moral judgments.
The new study, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Swiss National Science Foundation, and published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, found that the brain quickly evaluates whether a harmful act was intentional or not, responding immediately with strong emotions in the case of deliberate harm. The researchers believe that this response forms the universal foundation of morality in all cultures.
"It is part of humans' evolutionary heritage," lead author Jean Decety said. "The long history of mammalian evolution has shaped our brains to be sensitive to signs of suffering of others. And this constitutes a natural foundation for morality and sensitivity to justice."
The researchers used a technique known as high-density, event-related potentials technology to record the brain activity over time of adults who were watching a video of one person injuring another. Prior studies, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have demonstrated that when seeing another person intentionally harmed, three areas of the brain immediately react: the TPJ area in the back of the brain (more precisely known as the right posterior superior temporal sulcus), the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. However, fMRI technology is not sensitive enough to discern whether any of these areas respond before the others.
The researchers found that the brain reacted almost instantaneously to the image of one person injuring another, activating the TPJ area within 60 milliseconds. Significantly, the activity in this area was different depending on whether the injury appeared to be accidental (as in hitting someone while swinging a golf club) or deliberate (as in striking someone with a baseball bat).
In the case of accidental injury, only the TPJ area was activated. In the case of intentional harm, activity in the TPJ area was followed within 180 milliseconds by activation of the amygdala, associated with emotion, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, believed to play a critical role in morality-based decision-making.
The findings have strong implications for research into the relationship between emotions and morality. In the realm of philosophy, there is an ongoing debate over whether moral judgments begin with emotional or rational processes. That is, do we have emotional reactions to certain things because we have been taught (or decided) that they are wrong, or do we believe that they are wrong because they elicit strong emotional reactions?
The order and speed of the brain activity seen in a new study suggests that it is emotion and the perception of intentionality that initiate moral judgments concerning the treatment of others, Decety said.
"Our data strongly support the notion that determining intentionality is the first step in moral computations," he said.
In addition to illuminating philosophical questions, the new findings may also assist research into the moral responses of people who exhibit what are known as callous-unemotional traits, such as psychopaths or children who do not experience empathy.