Watching How the Brain Works as It Weighs a Moral Dilemma

September 26, 2001 | Source: New York Times

It is now possible to study scientifically how moral reasoning differs among individual people and across cultures, using functional brain imaging to detect brain activity via increases in blood flow.

A study published in the Sept. 14 issue of the journal Science showed that impersonal moral dilemmas, like deciding whether to keep the money in a found wallet, activated areas involved in working memory. However, personal moral dilemmas suppressed working memory areas and activated emotional circuits in the frontal regions.

Dr. Jonathan Cohen of Princeton, a psychologist and expert on brain imaging who worked on the study, says it begins to provide tools to understand why people with different cultural backgrounds can arrive at different conclusions about moral dilemmas, like taking a life for some greater good.

If people’s gut-level emotions are organized differently as a result of their backgrounds, he said, they may reason differently about what is right or wrong.

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