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Kathy Marshack News

How Does the Brain Make Moral Judgments?

Monday, December 29, 2014


brain research reveals how the brain makes moral judgmentsHow do you determine what’s right and what’s wrong for yourself? How do you judge the actions and ethics of others? Are we hardwired with a set of standards? What accounts for the differences among people? Neuroscience of morality is uncovering the remarkable way in which reason and emotion activate the brain networks when we make decisions, especially moral judgments.

As studies are conducted using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) patterns are emerging, which give us clues as to what is going on in the brain. A CNN article, “How your brain makes moral judgments”, reports on many of these findings. Here are a few that I found fascinating…

Joshua D. Greene, associate professor at Harvard University, published an influential study in 2001. His study suggests that the three brain structures involved in the emotional processes that influence moral decisions are the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate and angular gyrus. Other studies also confirm that these areas, as well as the ventral prefrontal cortex are activated in processing moral judgments.

And there’s evidence that supports that we are hard-wired to activate these regions as we’re confronted with moral dilemmas.

Randy Buckner and colleagues wrote a 2008 study that says in part:

“Thirty years of brain imaging research has converged to define the brain's default network…(this) default network is active when individuals are engaged in internally focused tasks including autobiographical memory retrieval, envisioning the future, and conceiving the perspectives of others.”

His study goes on to say that this default network can be defined by the interaction of multiple subsystems in the brain, i.e.,

“The medial temporal lobe subsystem provides information from prior experiences in the form of memories and associations that are the building blocks of mental simulation. The medial prefrontal subsystem facilitates the flexible use of this information during the construction of self-relevant mental simulations. These two subsystems converge on important nodes of integration including the posterior cingulate cortex.”

Understanding the brain’s networking systems will enable us to better understand those with impaired abilities to make good moral judgments – which includes various mental disorders. Until there’s a cure, psychotherapy has proven very effective in helping people to live a much fuller and more meaningful life. A healthy brain equals healthy relationships. If you live near Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA, please contact my office and schedule an appointment.



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