Thursday, March 22, 2007

Brain-damaged people give insights into morality: Scientific American

Brain-damaged people give insights into morality: Scientific American

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It's wartime, and an enemy doctor is conducting painful and inevitably fatal experiments on children.

You have two kids, ages 8 and 5. You can surrender one of them within 24 hours or the doctor will kill both. What is the right thing to do?

For most people, this scenario based on one in William Styron's novel "Sophie's Choice" is almost an impossible dilemma. But for a group of people with damage in a part of the brain's frontal lobe that helps govern emotions, the decision was far more clear. They would choose one child for death.
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Scientists said on Wednesday a study involving these people has produced unique insights into the brain mechanics of moral decision making and showed that in some key situations emotions play a fundamental role in moral judgments.

The new findings highlighted the role of a region in the front part of the brain below the eyes called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Earlier research had pegged this area -- one of the more recently evolved parts of the human brain -- as playing a role in generating social emotions. In fact, the people with damage in this region due to stroke or other causes experienced severely diminished empathy, compassion and sense of guilt.

The new findings published in the journal Nature seem to confirm its central role in guiding certain moral judgments like life-or-death scenarios.

The researchers set out to gauge to what degree emotions govern moral judgments by comparing decisions made by people whose emotions already were crippled by this brain damage to decisions made by people with no such damage.

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