Impaired emotional processing affects moral judgements

22 March 2007 New Scientist

Mr Spock, the fictional Vulcan famously logical and lacking in emotion, sacrificed himself for his comrades in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with the following words to Captain Kirk: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the oneā€¦"

Now, revealing new research shows that people with damage to a key emotion-processing region of the brain also make moral decisions based on the greater good of the community, unclouded by concerns over harming an individual.

Antonio Damasio at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, US, and colleagues recruited 30 people for their experiment. Six of the subjects had suffered damage to a region in the front of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), which regulates emotions. The participants had this brain injury as a result of an aneurism or tumour growth in the VMPC region.


Damage to the prefrontal cortex increases utilitarian moral judgements

Michael Koenigs, ... Antonio Damasio

'Altruistic' brain region found


BBC: Scientists say they have found the part of the brain that predicts whether a person will be selfish or an altruist. Altruism - the tendency to help others without obvious benefit to oneself - appears to be linked to an area called the posterior superior temporal sulcus. Using brain scans, the US investigators found this region related to a person's real-life unselfish behaviour. The Duke University Medical Center study on 45 volunteers is published in Nature Neuroscience.


@Although the neural mechanisms underlying altruism remain unknown, empathy and its component abilities, such as the perception of the actions and intentions of others, have been proposed as key contributors. Tasks requiring the perception of agency activate the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), particularly in the right hemisphere. Here, we demonstrate that differential activation of the human pSTC during action perception versus action performance predicts self-reported altruism.@


Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6, 799-809 (2005); doi:10.1038/nrn1768

Jorge Moll, Roland Zahn, et. el.

Review of recent research.