dirty rag

where are morals - maybe in mirror neurons? - Dan Dreifort

Recent research hints at some of the biological functions responsible for what we call morality.

Motor Neurons
...they're gray and gooey, for sure.

Until recently, scientists thought reasoning was responsible for allowing us to understand and interpret intentions of others’ actions we see on a daily basis. We now know that these common processes occur in the brain’s so called brain-motor areas among mirror neurons, so called because they reflect acts performed by another. These cells act identically when performing and observing similar actions. The mirror neuron / empathy connection is patent as both involve mutual experience and feelings.

These mirror neurons also fill in gaps when information is omitted but inferred. For example, a monkey’s mirror neuron activity was measured while watching a person reach for and then grasp an object. When an opaque screen blocks the monkey’s view and the procedure is repeated, the motor neuron response is identical. However, when the subject knows with certainty that there is no object behind the screen, the neurons do not react (Rizzolati, Fogassi, & Gallese, 2006). If our physiology is similar to the primate subjects, we can clearly attribute many of our empathic traits to these special cells.

Autistics have problems interacting with others and also lack an ability to imagine or hypothesize what others are doing (Ramachandran & Oberman, 2006). We can say that most autistics lack empathy. Studies now show that autistics lack motor neuron activity, another example of the mirror neuron / empathy connection.

Another recent study comparing brain responses of those in caring professions (social workers, firefighters, nurses etc.) to non-professionals showed that, “[the caring] professionals appear so far to be more aroused by… distress than controls, but the data need to be reanalyzed this summer” (Preston, 2007). If the analysis and future experiments indeed show that differences in mirror neurons are responsible for humans’ differing responses, it’s safe to say that motor neuron performance weighs heavily on one’s moral potential. There are other processes involved in our personification of morals though.

When presented with the runaway train conundrum, (you may push one person to certain death to save several while inaction will kill several,) people with a damaged ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) an area of the brain usually linked to emotional response, don’t hesitate at all and are three times more likely than their non-damaged, hesitating counterparts to push one person to certain death while saving many. Those with damaged VMPC, “are not amoral but seem to lack the natural conflict between emotion and reason” (Swaminathan, 2007). To the contrary, it seems possible to argue that VMPC damage leads to a higher moral state. I.e. they’re able to make the right choice while we tally and flip-flop. Maybe we are damaged and they are not!

Another study uncovered our brains’ bakes, allowing us the opportunity to mull over tough decisions. Three different brain regions directly connected act as a neural braking network that stops other processing for a few seconds allowing us to make decisions. “The inferior frontal cortex sends the braking signal to the midbrain’s subthalamic nucleus, which stops motor movement; a third region, the presupplementary motor area, initiates the plan to halt or continue action” (Benios, 2007). Interestingly, there are no synapses between the three areas, allowing the often vital communication to occur almost instantaneously. It is thought that stuttering might in some way be tied to this area. Surely those with damage to this system might exhibit what we might call moral incongruities.

Where will this recent brain research leads us? We’ll soon know more about the true biological nature of humans’ morality.

Works Cited

  • Benios, T. (2007, June). Brain Brakes. Scientific American , p. 38.
  • Preston, S. (2007, May 25). Tell me about your recent mirror neuron research, please? (D. Dreifort, Interviewer)
  • Ramachandran, V. S., & Oberman, L. M. (2006, November). Broken Mirrors a Theory of Autism. Scientific American , pp. 62-69.
  • Rizzolati, G., Fogassi, L., & Gallese, V. (2006, November). Mirrors in the Mind. Scientific American , pp. 54-61.
  • Swaminathan, N. (2007, June). Brain Damage for Easier Moral Choices. Scientific American , p. 36.