The Moral Brain
Consider a failed murder attempt. Or a simple mistake that causes another to die. Is one of these more acceptable than the other?
Neuroscientists don’t pretend to hold the answers as to how people know what is right and what is wrong. But studies show individual biology may influence the ways people process the actions of others.
It turns out we judge others not only for what they do, but also for what we perceive they are thinking while they do it… “Often, what determines moral blame is not what the outcome is, but what [we think] is going on in the mind of the person performing the act,” says Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies how the brain casts judgment.
One way scientists study how we make right-or-wrong judgments is to look at brain regions that are most active when people attempt to interpret the thoughts of others.
In some studies, participants read stories about characters that either accidentally or intentionally cause harm to others while scientists use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track how brain activity changes. Such studies show that thinking about another’s thoughts increases the activity of nerve cells in a brain region known as the right temporo-parietal junction located behind the right ear.
As it turns out, some of these cells respond differently when presented with an intentional harm versus an accident. By zeroing in on the distinct patterns of activity in these cells, Saxe’s group discovered that they could accurately predict how forgiving the participants would be.