Stamp of nature: Neurology & Morality

The universal desire for ‘world peace’ is no less honourable despite its cliched ubiquity. When observing human nature I tend Gray717towards the utopian idealism of Thomas Paine, or Carl Rogers, to name but a few. As such, I don’t think that conflict is a necessary product of our differences, and consequently insoluble. Rather, I think that the fields of empirical Psychology and experiential spiritualism  show that conflict is the product of competition and / or fear. Understanding fear linked to low self esteem and perceived external loci of control could be the keys to reducing the behavioural aspects of conflict. However, we also need to look at the neurological components of conflict in order to link thoughts with oppositional behaviours.

My starting point for understanding the neurology of conflict is to look at conflict in terms of morality. Differences arising from perceived moral righteousness are more strongly felt, and seem to be emotively articulated. I am predominantly concerned with a normative structure of morality rather than more descriptive morality.

There is a growing body of research showing a neurological basis for morality, put simply – different areas of the brain are stimulated when we perceive something to be immoral or moral. This excellent review by Mendez (2009) includes fMRI evidence for ventromedial pre-frontal cortex participation in moral decision making. It also explains how sociopathy can be acquired due to structural chronic damage to the brain.

Greene et al (2004) undertook groundbreaking research on the Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict. Using fMRI they showed that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex are active when we face moral conflicts, particularly those which pertain to personal dilemmas. Of particular note here are the neurological differences found between abstract impersonal conflicts and personal conflicts of self. They found that wider ‘cognitive focussed’ regions of the brain (e.g. Right Mid Frontal and Temporal Gyrus) showed greater activation during the abstract impersonal moral dilemma, whilst regions more greatly involved with the moderation of emotion (e.g. the Posterior Cingulate) showed greater activation for personalised moral dilemmas. Participants also showed far slower reaction times in making those decisions when the dilemmas were personalised.

The findings of Greene et al (2004)  can most clearly be applied to the classical dilemma of utilitarian philosophy, namely The Trolley Problem, and its subsequent Footbridge (or “baby”) conditions. In this dilemma the Trolley condition constitutes an impersonal moral dilemma, and the Footbridge condition constitutes a personal moral judgement. Greene (2004) found increased activation in the neurological structures which regulate emotion (superior temporal sulcus, posterior cingulute / precuneus, medial prefrontal cortex) when participants were faced with the personal moral dilemma (the footbridge) rather than the impersonal moral dilemma (the trolley). Those regions of the brain primarily concerned with abstract cognitive reason (e.g. the inferior parietal lobes, and the anterior dorso-prefrontal lateral cortex) were more active when participants were faced with the impersonal trolley situation.

It’s in the interaction between cognitive judgement and emotional response when making personal moral decisions that we could start to find new ways forward in conflict resolution. If personal moral judgements exist within the same neurological subsystems as emotions, and we experience them emotionally, then maybe we need to start to deal with them as we do with other emotion based responses. Conventional, informal, conflict resolution patterns (e.g. a debate, an argument, a discussion, a workshop etc) are, in this framework, more akin to Schacter & Singer’s Two Step Theory of Emotion.  By bringing additional contrasting values based moral structures to pre-existing ideas we add emotionally experienced responses to pre-existing responses. Which will probably further entrench the very moral framework which is the point of conflict. I wonder whether we could start to understand such conflicts in terms of classic psychotherapy ? Would a rational-emotive framework be more effective ? Or even possibly a cognitive-behavioural approach ? It would be great to see the state leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Europe & N.America involved in RET !

Further evidence of the importance of emotional responses is found in the work of Sanfey et al, 2003. Sanfey’s use of the Ultimatum Game to study ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ decisions leads us to place a much sharper focus on an area of the lateral sulcus known as the insular cortex. The Insular is an incredibly important component of the brain as it links emotional and cognitive processing. It also links sensorimotor and cognitive functioning. The insular cortex can be damaged by diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Chorea, and stroke. It has a wide range of functions, including:

  • Maintenance of Homeostasis
  • Introceptive awareness (e.g.heartbeat and blood pressure)
  • Perception of pain.
  • Knowledge of the state of our bladder.
  • Empathy, concentration, self assurance.
  • Speech.
  • Emotions such as disgust and distaste.

Sanfey et al (2003) found significantly increased activity in the anterior insular cortex when unfair offers were made than when fair offers were made. They also observed higher activity in the anterior insular cortex when the unfair offer was thought to be made by a human than when it was thought to be made by a computer.

The implications are revealing and far reaching. Decisions, or actions, which are judged to be unfair (or personally immoral) have very similar neurological pathways to external stimuli that we find disgusting. Evidence for this is found from sufferers of Huntington’s who can find it difficult to recognise disgust in others, or find it difficult to identify things that they should find disgusting. Further, the cognitive processes of perceived unfairness, or immorality, is experienced in the same pathways that control physiological processes such as blood pressure and body temperature. As such I suggest that in conflict resolution we make greater use of practices which unify physical and psychological states such as meditation or yoga. Finally, the findings would suggest that perceptions of unfairness and immorality are neurologically akin to pain sensations.

The research finds scientific evidence for phrases such as “You disgust me”, or “S/he makes my blood boil” !

The research cited leads us to a number of questions as to how we may use neurology to improve our understanding of moral dispute and subsequent conflict resolution. A starting point maybe:

  • What are the implications for conflict resolution if we situate dispute within a neurological framework ?
  • How do we start to change the process of conflict resolution if we find that the neurological sensation of unfairness is similar to that of pain ?
  • How might we change conflict resolution if we consider that moral difference is experienced as a form of physical disgust ?

For use almost can change the stamp of nature.

Hamlet imploring Gertrude not to sleep with Claudius.
Hamlet Act 3, Sc 4, 168.

Greene, j., and Cohen, J. (2004). For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B Biol. Sci., in Press.

Alan G. Sanfey; James K. Rilling; Jessica A. Aronson; Leigh E. Nystrom; Jonathan D. Cohen. The Neural Basis of Economic decision-Making in the Ultimatum GameScience300(5626):1755-1758, 2003. PMID: 12805551. DOI: 10.1126/science.1082976. FMRIDCID: . WOBIB: 179.

(originally posted on my writing blog ( on 10th March 2014

6 thoughts on “Stamp of nature: Neurology & Morality

  1. Great article! Having studied the puzzling and problematic human critter for four decades now, I am hoping to join a think tank of scientists and philosophers who know that our brain drives all human actions and events. Can we talk? Here is a recent article I wrote for Reader Supported News – Brain Catastrophes by the Numbers: Mental Minefields we Must Traverse to Survive:

    Thanks for your consideration, my good doctors, and my very best wishes for you and your very worthy endeavors!

    -Brendan Maloney

    1. Hi Brendan, that’s a great article which puts together much really interesting evolutionary psychology and biology. Many thanks for sharing, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

      1. Thanks for your reply, Daniel!

        I must tell you I am only a widely-read high school graduate, turning 60 in a few weeks. My specialty is making connections between diverse fields of study and I am a huge believer in the tried and true World Systems Theory that posits that the only thing that defines anything is that thing’s interactions with other things… clearly, you and I are in agreement on that!

        Some folks doubt the deep impact on male dominance of linear alphabets, but if one looks at the aggressiveness of radical Islam, with it’s deep adherence to The Book and it’s rejection of right-brain images…

        No women in history had more personal power and freedom than those in Ancient Egypt: Names passed thru the mother’s line, divorce was common, girls were as cherished as boys, at least 2 women were Pharaohs, they joined in secret rites of the power elite, goddesses wise and very powerful: Ma’at created the Milky Way by scattering her mother’s milk across the empty night sky, and when Egyptians died, including Pharaoh, Ma’at suckled them at her breast for eternity. Ma’at also weighed/judged their souls/sins against the lightness of a feather at their deaths.

        I am convinced that the balanced-brain Egyptian Empire lasted for 3500 years because it did NOT use abstract, sequential, linear alphabets – but rather holistic, concrete, synthesizing hieroglyphs/pictographs, produced and interpreted by the visual right brain. Recent studies have shown that human violence has receded somewhat, and I am certain that the rise of computers and images, as well as the fact that typing requires two hands and two brain hemis, have a lot to do with that.

        I don’t know if you watched my late friend Len Shlains great Alphabet versus the Goddess lecture (in my article), but many of the wonderful slides were collected by his daughter Tiffany, who had two of her films shown at the Sundance Film Festival a few years ago. She has a sweet website, The Future Starts Here:

        I also find it interesting that the holistic right brain develops much earlier in fetuses than the troublesome left hemi, since we are all female before some of us turn male. But it almost seems that the left hemi is an evo parasite, and that is a bit scary!

        Until fairly recently, surgeons excised 80% or so of the left brains of children under age 7 (with undifferentiated stem cells) in order to save their lives by preventing several epileptic seizures per day. The vast majority of left brain functions easily migrated to the holisitic right hemi. I would dearly LOVE to see psychological studies of these hemispherectomy children as adults, in order to see if their levels of aggression were reduced! I’m poor and don’t have sophisticated search engines, so if that interests you, Daniel, perhaps you could share what you find if you look it up.

        More later if you reply – don’t want to overload you – I have been on this for 40 years; tho most of that time awaiting relevant new discoveries and the maturation and creation of the sciences genetics and epigenetics. The Human Genome Project was child’s play, compared to the forthcoming Human Epigenome / Human Protein Projects, eh? As an armchair scholar I didn’t have to “publish or perish,” the bane of American academia that often forces profs to defend old, brittle theories in order to get tenured.

        P.S. – I often find that music helps clear the mental palate, freeing up the “little gray cells.”

        My favorite vocal duet that makes my spirit soar every time I hear it. Phantom of the Opera visuals a bit edgy, but appropriate, because of protagonist and protagonista’s shared passion for Musica in this piece from Andrea Bocelli’s wonderful Romanza CD.

        When I start to think things are hopeless these days – easy to do, with the huge stress of human population doubling every 40 damned years because of the Oil Boom (only a gradual pop increase until first modern oil well drilled) – I listen to this “Sword Against the Coming Darkness” song, The Battle of Evermore, by Led Zeppelin… You will LOVE it.

        Very best wishes, and if I can be of help to you at all, please do let me know!

        Brendan Maloney 2429 Rondowa Ave. Riverside, Ohio, 45404 (937) 236-5206

      2. Hi again, Daniel –

        Just to make brain issues a little more complicated, this very interesting TED Talk posits that bacterial parasites that have great influence on behavior of lower mammals like mice, making them commit “suicide by cat” because the parasite thrives in cat intestines, may affect our brains as well… very scary stuff here; so new that there will be very little literature on it…

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