A 2006 study headed by the neuroscientist Jorge Moll at the National Institute of Health has raised some interesting questions about how the physiology of the brain affects our sense of morality and altruism. The study, designed by Moll along with fellow neuroscientist Jordan Grafman, was based around scanning the brains of participants as they were presented with scenarios that involved either donating money to charity or keeping it for themselves.
Interestingly, the team’s research showed that when participants made decisions that benefited others, a primitive portion of the brain was activated. This part of the brain has usually been associated with baser brain functions such as responses to sex or food. These findings suggest that altruism and morality might not find their basis in high-minded ethical thinking, but rather are more closely associated with portions of the brain that are hard-wired to our pleasure responses. In other words, Moll’s study suggests that we give because it activates our pleasure center and makes us feel good.
These findings lend credence to generations of philosophers and spiritual leaders who have long advocated for the idea that generosity can make us feel more fulfilled. In addition, this study is just the latest example of how the modern study of the brain is changing the way we approach basic discussions about the human moral compass.
Jorge Moll’s exploration into the brain’s role in morality is part of a growing body of research showing that questions of ethics seem to be hard-wired into our neural architecture. These findings point to the idea that morality is very likely the result of an evolutionary process that has spanned numerous species across millennia. This concept is further supported by studies that have underscored the ability of other species to make ethical decisions, such as one in which rats refused to eat food after understanding that doing so would result in an electrical shock being administered to a neighboring rat.
Many of these related studies point to the importance of empathy as a foundation for morality. Scientists feel that being able to recognize another creature’s internal state was an important evolutionary leap forward in developing social behavior (http://www.idor.org/nossa-equipe). This development of social behavior is closely connected to the human awareness of right and wrong, an area of study that is being expanded by Moll’s research.
Moll the Neuroscientist
As the president-director of the D’Or Institute for Research and Education, Dr. Moll has a long history of investigating how the brain’s physical nature affects human decision making. With a specialty in cognitive neuroscience, Moll’s research focus is on the neural bases of behavior and moral cognition. As with his 2006 study, the neurologist often uses functional magnetic resonance imaging to aid his clinical research, a methodology which many other researchers have adopted in their own studies.
While research such as Moll’s is offering a fascinating look into the way our brains work, there are some in the world of philosophy that fear the studies are raising troubling questions. These fears center around the thought that reducing morality to a question of neural architecture might reduce our notion of personal responsibility when it comes to making ethical choices. Some are even worried that the nature of morality, often viewed as a special trait that makes humans compassionate and unique among animals, will be tarnished if it becomes widely understood to be an evolutionary tool created by nature to help species-wide survival.
Our changing understanding of how our brains affect our ability to make moral decisions also raises questions about how much responsibility we can place on those with brain damage who make immoral choices. Studies into this very idea have shown that people with damage to the part of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lack the ability to find moral answers when confronted with ethical dilemmas. These subjects often reached “immoral conclusions” when facing difficult issues, such as whether to shoot down a passenger plane hijacked by terrorists before it hits a major city. These results are causing some scientists to reason that society may have to rethink how it judges so-called immoral people (GloboPlay.Globo).
The Research Continues
Research similar to that conducted by Moll could also begin to change how we view the boundaries of moral responsibility. One idea that has long vexed moral teachers is the observation that people seem more willing to help others when they are relatively close in terms of physical distance. With this new understanding of the evolution of our brains, it starts to become more apparent why people may feel more compelled to, for instance, donate to a local charity than an organization that conducts work overseas. Simply put, there was no evolutionary reason for our ancestors to prioritize such long-distance contributions, so the physical makeup of our brains is not built to support it.
The 2006 study designed by Dr. Jorge Moll is an important step in our constant march toward a more complete understanding of the human neurology. His work, along with that of other researchers, is offering a new and invaluable look into how our brain chemistry affects decisions of morality and ethics. With so much information being uncovered on the neural architecture of late, our ideas on these topics are sure to keep evolving in the years to come. It’s possible that as our understanding changes, society’s approach to individuals making “unethical decisions” may need to change as well. In a world increasingly guided by scientific discovery, the information uncovered by Moll is just another way in which clinical studies are having a profound impact on how we view our world.