Stamp of Nature: Neurology and Morality

Gray717The universal desire for ‘world peace’ is no less honourable despite its cliched ubiquity. When observing human nature I tend towards the utopian idealism of Thomas Paine, or Carl Rogers, to name but a few. As such, I don’t think that conflict is a necessary product of our differences, and consequently insoluble. Rather, I think that the fields of empirical Psychology and experiential spiritualism  show that conflict is the product of competition and / or fear. Understanding fear linked to low self esteem and perceived external loci of control could be the keys to reducing the behavioural aspects of conflict. However, we also need to look at the neurological components of conflict in order to link thoughts with oppositional behaviours.

My starting point for understanding the neurology of conflict is to look at conflict in terms of morality. Differences arising from perceived moral righteousness are more strongly felt, and seem to be emotively articulated. I am predominantly concerned with a normative structure of morality rather than more descriptive morality.

There is a growing body of research showing a neurological basis for morality, put simply – different areas of the brain are stimulated when we perceive something to be immoral or moral. This excellent review by Mendez (2009) includes fMRI evidence for ventromedial pre-frontal cortex participation in moral decision making. It also explains how sociopathy can be acquired due to structural chronic damage to the brain.

Greene et al (2004) undertook groundbreaking research on the Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict. Using fMRI they showed that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex are active when we face moral conflicts, particularly those which pertain to personal dilemmas. Of particular note here are the neurological differences found between abstract impersonal conflicts and personal conflicts of self. They found that wider ‘cognitive focussed’ regions of the brain (e.g. Right Mid Frontal and Temporal Gyrus) showed greater activation during the abstract impersonal moral dilemma, whilst regions more greatly involved with the moderation of emotion (e.g. the Posterior Cingulate) showed greater activation for personalised moral dilemmas. Participants also showed far slower reaction times in making those decisions when the dilemmas were personalised.

The findings of Greene et al (2004)  can most clearly be applied to the classical dilemma of utilitarian philosophy, namely The Trolley Problem, and its subsequent Footbridge (or “baby”) conditions. In this dilemma the Trolley condition constitutes an impersonal moral dilemma, and the Footbridge condition constitutes a personal moral judgement. Greene (2004) found increased activation in the neurological structures which regulate emotion (superior temporal sulcus, posterior cingulute / precuneus, medial prefrontal cortex) when participants were faced with the personal moral dilemma (the footbridge) rather than the impersonal moral dilemma (the trolley). Those regions of the brain primarily concerned with abstract cognitive reason (e.g. the inferior parietal lobes, and the anterior dorso-prefrontal lateral cortex) were more active when participants were faced with the impersonal trolley situation.

It’s in the interaction between cognitive judgement and emotional response when making personal moral decisions that we could start to find new ways forward in conflict resolution. If personal moral judgements exist within the same neurological subsystems as emotions, and we experience them emotionally, then maybe we need to start to deal with them as we do with other emotion based responses. Conventional, informal, conflict resolution patterns (e.g. a debate, an argument, a discussion, a workshop etc) are, in this framework, more akin to Schacter & Singer’s Two Step Theory of Emotion.  By bringing additional contrasting values based moral structures to pre-existing ideas we add emotionally experienced responses to pre-existing responses. Which will probably further entrench the very moral framework which is the point of conflict. I wonder whether we could start to understand such conflicts in terms of classic psychotherapy ? Would a rational-emotive framework be more effective ? Or even possibly a cognitive-behavioural approach ? It would be great to see the state leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Europe & N.America involved in RET !

Further evidence of the importance of emotional responses is found in the work of Sanfey et al, 2003. Sanfey’s use of the Ultimatum Game to study ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ decisions leads us to place a much sharper focus on an area of the lateral sulcus known as the insular cortex. The Insular is an incredibly important component of the brain as it links emotional and cognitive processing. It also links sensorimotor and cognitive functioning. The insular cortex can be damaged by diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s Chorea, and stroke. It has a wide range of functions, including:

  • Maintenance of Homeostasis
  • Introceptive awareness (e.g.heartbeat and blood pressure)
  • Perception of pain.
  • Knowledge of the state of our bladder.
  • Empathy, concentration, self assurance.
  • Speech.
  • Emotions such as disgust and distaste.

Sanfey et al (2003) found significantly increased activity in the anterior insular cortex when unfair offers were made than when fair offers were made. They also observed higher activity in the anterior insular cortex when the unfair offer was thought to be made by a human than when it was thought to be made by a computer.

The implications are revealing and far reaching. Decisions, or actions, which are judged to be unfair (or personally immoral) have very similar neurological pathways to external stimuli that we find disgusting. Evidence for this is found from sufferers of Huntington’s who can find it difficult to recognise disgust in others, or find it difficult to identify things that they should find disgusting. Further, the cognitive processes of perceived unfairness, or immorality, is experienced in the same pathways that control physiological processes such as blood pressure and body temperature. As such I suggest that in conflict resolution we make greater use of practices which unify physical and psychological states such as meditation or yoga. Finally, the findings would suggest that perceptions of unfairness and immorality are neurologically akin to pain sensations.

The research finds scientific evidence for phrases such as “You disgust me”, or “S/he makes my blood boil” !

The research cited leads us to a number of questions as to how we may use neurology to improve our understanding of moral dispute and subsequent conflict resolution. A starting point maybe:

  • What are the implications for conflict resolution if we situate dispute within a neurological framework ?
  • How do we start to change the process of conflict resolution if we find that the neurological sensation of unfairness is similar to that of pain ?
  • How might we change conflict resolution if we consider that moral difference is experienced as a form of physical disgust ?

For use almost can change the stamp of nature.

Hamlet imploring Gertrude not to sleep with Claudius.
Hamlet Act 3, Sc 4, 168.

Greene, j., and Cohen, J. (2004). For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B Biol. Sci., in Press.

Alan G. Sanfey; James K. Rilling; Jessica A. Aronson; Leigh E. Nystrom; Jonathan D. CohenThe Neural Basis of Economic decision-Making in the Ultimatum GameScience300(5626):1755-1758, 2003. PMID: 12805551. DOI: 10.1126/science.1082976. FMRIDCID: . WOBIB: 179.


About danieltrump

breathing and sensing human. Learning to observe, learning to write, exploring ideas and thinking.


  1. good one….#wordpress!

  2. Wonderful post! Neuroplasticity, time, stillness and conflict resolution! What a cocktail …!

  3. Extremely thought-provoking. Thank you.

  4. Many thanks for taking the time to read this, and to comment. It is much appreciated. Maybe if we can understand immorality at a neurological level we might find new ways to solve some big problems.

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