Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dueling Crickets

This may not be too interesting to many others (Though, it touches on some of the same topics as playasinmar’s post, here), but the group researching how moral judgments are made by the human mind that I posted on way back, here, have just put out some new data, published in Nature, here (or you can read on article on it, here).

In prior work they found there are a couple parts of the brain that interact, seemingly fight, when faced with moral dilemmas, one that’s being characterized as an “emotional” moral processor and the other a “logical” moral processor. The emotional volume is thought to be older, more instinctual, inflexible, and simple (e.g. don't kill your children), and the other is thought to be more complex and calculating, based more so in cold learning of social norms.

In normal people this research team has imaged these two areas seemingly in struggle for dominance on certain ethical questions. But, as I went over in that earlier post, on some ethical questions, one side may easily dominate the other. Here, the researchers looked at folks who have had the part of the brain that functions as their emotional moral sense damaged by a stroke, what they are calling VMPC lesions.

They describe some of the research on individual who’ve had such damage in their introduction:
Patients with VMPC lesions exhibit generally diminished emotional responsivity and markedly reduced social emotions (for example, compassion, shame and guilt) that are closely associated with moral values, and also exhibit poorly regulated anger and frustration tolerance in certain circumstances. Despite these patent defects both in emotional response and emotion regulation, the capacities for general intelligence, logical reasoning, and declarative knowledge of social and moral norms are preserved

The VMPC group in this work is compared to those who’ve had damage elsewhere in the brain (Control 1) and those with no damage (Control 2). They gave them all a series of questions ranging from ‘low-conflict’ questions (e.g. should you abandon your baby because it was too much of a burden?) to ‘high conflict’ questions (e.g. should you kill your baby to save the lives of others?). For those interested, their questions can be found here. Some of them certainly do not have easy answers.

All groups performed the same on the low-conflict questions; where both the emotional and logical moral sense agreed. Control 1 and Control 2 groups performed statistically alike on all questions. But for every high conflict question, those where these two areas fought in folks without this damage, the VPMC group sided with the cold logic. They consistently were more willing to do the math and harm or kill an innocent human themselves to save others.

From the discussion of their results:

“In the absence of an emotional reaction to harm of others in personal moral dilemmas, VMPC patients may rely on explicit norms endorsing the maximization of aggregate welfare and prohibiting the harming of others. This strategy would lead VMPC patients to a normal pattern of judgements on low-conflict personal dilemmas but an abnormal pattern of judgements on high-conflict personal dilemmas, precisely as was observed.”

To wake up with one of these brain lesions, in all, sounds undesirable, maybe nightmarish. Besides the above, the authors also found these people “had impaired autonomic activity in response to emotionally charged pictures (Table 2), as well as severely diminished empathy, embarrassment and guilt (Table 2).” They gained a “blunted affect and a specific defect of social emotions” and, at provocation came to abnormally show a “short-temper, irritability, and anger.” Personally, I want to be creeped out by “pictures of social disasters, mutilations, nudes”; well, maybe not nudes :-). I don’t want diminished empathy or a hot temper, to be sure, but I even like my embarrassment and guilt, to the extent that they keep me from repeating errors.

Some (You know the occupations ;-)) may think it could be nice to have an emotionless view of morality, fact and figures only. Some may envy a diminished ability for feel guilt and shame, too. And it really can be reasonable to kill one person, even your child, in “Sophie’s Choice,” the trolley scenario, and the “Laurence of Arabia” scenario, to save many other lives… That emotional sense of morality can cause us to do wrong in getting in the way. I’d hate to know what I’d do either way if faced in reality with some of these questions, yet I also think to be able to make a tough but right decision is, well, good :-).

Still, I’ll never be asking for that sort of brain surgery. I suspect it’s better to make even those exact same tough decisions, with the exact same actions and outcomes, with the guilt and intense internal battle. It does seem right to feel toubled in some cases, even if you did do the right thing and you eventually come to absolutely know that you did. I suspect there’s often a value in the way in which a tough decision is made, in the worry and second-guessing, in knowing, once it's done, it wasn’t easy.

Anyway, I’m not sure a huge connection to gay issues can be made here (I’m not bound to make one in every post, am I? :-)). The topic simply fascinates me. Though, as I’ve said repeatedly, moral decisions and realizations about being gay are at the heart of being a healthy gay man, to my mind and experience (you’ll find that in Chapter 4 Verse 12 of the Gay Book Of Scot ;-)). A gay man who is actively gay because he can only logically see it’s right but can’t emotionally feel it’s right, or a gay man who is actively gay despite his moral notions altogether can both be very dangerous men to those around them. In my experience the gay men who thrive and benefit others the most are those who either 1. were never taught there was a moral reason to fight their orientation in the first place or 2. struggled hard to realize the actual ethics of their choices, either going with his makeup or his culture. If they’ve found an honest truce between the warring factions in the moral centers of their mind, the worst part, by my observations, is over.

There, I made a connection :-).

In other news, I’m not going to be able to get back to the ideal family argument until after the weekend. I hate to put off something I said I’d do and I will next week, but I want to use it for other things and so it’s grown into what seems to be a 3-parter. And, besides, I hate the thought of posting what I have and going a weekend being misunderstood and unable to respond :-).

1 comment:

playasinmar said...

"Besides the above, the authors also found these people “had... severely diminished empathy, embarrassment and guilt."

I remember walking with my friends to High School. There was this one house we would pass everyday.

Many warm mornings there would be this crazy old guy out in front working in his flower bed dressed only in underwear.

Why, Grandpa! Why?! Everyone knows we're related!