People are able to detect, within a split second, if a hurtful action they are witnessing is intentional or accidental, new research on the brain at the University of Chicago shows.
The study is the first to explain how the brain is hard-wired to recognize when another person is being intentionally harmed. It also provides new insights into how such recognition is connected with emotion and morality, said lead author Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at UChicago.
"Our data strongly support the notion that determining intentionality is the first step in moral computations," said Decety, who conducted research on the topic with Stephanie Cacioppo, a research associate (assistant professor) in psychology at UChicago. They published the results in a paper, "The Speed of Morality: A High-Density Electrical Neuroimaging Study," to be published Dec. 1 and now on early preview in the Journal of Neurophysiology.
The researchers studied adults who watched videos of people who suffered accidental harm (such as being hit with a golf club) and intentional harm (such as being struck with a baseball bat). While watching the videos, brain activity was collected with equipment that accurately maps responses in different regions of the brain and importantly, the timing between these regions. The technique is known as high-density, event-related potentials technology.
The intentional harm sequence produced a response in the brain almost instantly. The study showed that within 60 milliseconds, the right posterior superior temporal sulcus (also known as TPJ area), located in the back of the brain, was first activated, with different activity depending on whether the harm was intentional or accidental. It was followed in quick succession by the amygdala, often linked with emotion, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (180 milliseconds), the portion of the brain that plays a critical role in moral decision-making.
There was no such response in the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex when the harm was accidental.
Other studies with functional MRI scans, including those in Decety's lab, have shown that those areas of the brain become activated when people see others intentionally harmed, but those studies have been unable to separate or time the way the various parts of the brain may work together.
"High-density ERPs can identify spatio-temporal patterns of communication between regions that contrast analyses (such as fMRI) with low temporal resolution may not detect, and such methods are necessary to advance knowledge of neuroscience of morality," said Cacioppo.
The ability to recognize and respond emotionally to the intentional infliction of harm is a critical source of morality that is universal across cultures, researchers believe. "It is part of humans' evolutionary heritage," 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."
Philosophers have debated the origins of this moral response for ages. Some maintain that moral judgments begin with an immediate aversive reaction to perceived or imagined harm to victims, though the full moral judgment may form only after the fact. Other philosophers maintain that moral principals develop from reason alone and are not connected to emotion.
The new research suggests that emotion and the perception of intentionality, rather than deliberate reasoning, comprise the vital first component of moral responses—at least for responses that stem from care for others Decety said.
The research may help inform other areas of neurodevelopment research, including studies of the moral responses of psychopaths and of children who lack empathy for others, displaying what are called callous-unemotional traits.
University of Chicago: http://www-news.uchicago.edu
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
Pigs ‘edited’ with a warthog gene to resist African swine fever could help spawn GM animal farms in the UK
Mouse House to make naturalist biopic, six years after box-office failure of Creation, starring Paul Bettany
International team spends 10 years making inroads into treatment of bacterium which kills up to half of those it infects
You may not know it, but you probably have some Neanderthal in you. For people around the world, except sub-Saharan Africans, about 1 to 3 percent of their DNA comes from Neanderthals, our close cousins who disappeared roughly 39,000 years ago.
Research at Yale plotted what happened in the brains of two scientists as they held a conversation
From medicines to jet fuel, we have so many reasons to celebrate the microbes we live with every day
Genome sequencing indicates Kennewick Man is Native American, reopening the bitter battle over whether he should be reburied or studied
In the article on the discovery of dinosaurs (They’re back, Review, 6 June) you state: “In Sussex, a local doctor uncovered fragmentary remains of what appeared to be two more species of colossal extinct land reptiles.” You grossly underplay the contribution of Lewes-born Gideon Mantell, geologist and palaeontologist, author and diarist, friend to princes and international scholars as well as local doctor. Mantell not only discovered (aided by his wife) the first remains of the iguanodon in 1824 but named it – as it resembled the tooth of an iguana. This was the first known land dinosaur, Mary Anning having identified the first sea-living dinosaur.Mantell went on to put together more pieces of the jigsaw with extra fossil discoveries. In contrast to Richard Owen, whose models form the basis for the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, Mantell stated correctly that iguanodon would have walked on their back legs, using their forearms to fight or gather food. He did, however, attribute the thumb spike to a nose horn though later corrected this assumption. The Natural History Museum has a display on Gideon and his wife Mary’s contribution as well as the large “Mantell-piece” of Iguanodon fossils that he had on show in his museum in Brighton. He sold it, along with many more priceless items, to the British Museum in 1838. Gideon Mantell’s reputation deserves better than your throwaway remark. Debby MatthewsLewes, East Sussex Continue reading...
Unique triangular hairs help keep Saharan silver ants cool at 70°C by manipulating the physics of light
Most animals wouldn't confront a fearsome predator like a lion. But through sophisticated group work, hyenas launch successful raids