The Washington Post published an interesting article last week on research suggesting that human traits like generosity and altruism may be innate.
It describes a number of experiments which are tackling the relatively new field of ‘moral neuroscience’, which aims to understand how the brain is involved in moral decision-making.
What is interesting is that some of the brain areas found to be associated with this form of reasoning are those thought to be quite ‘old’ in evolutionary terms.
In one 2004 brain-imaging experiment [pdf], Greene asked volunteers to imagine that they were hiding in a cellar of a village as enemy soldiers came looking to kill all the inhabitants. If a baby was crying in the cellar, Greene asked, was it right to smother the child to keep the soldiers from discovering the cellar and killing everyone?
The reason people are slow to answer such an awful question, the study indicated, is that emotion-linked circuits automatically signaling that killing a baby is wrong clash with areas of the brain that involve cooler aspects of cognition. One brain region activated when people process such difficult choices is the inferior parietal lobe, which has been shown to be active in more impersonal decision-making. This part of the brain, in essence, was “arguing” with brain networks that reacted with visceral horror.
Such studies point to a pattern, Greene said, showing “competing forces that may have come online at different points in our evolutionary history. A basic emotional response is probably much older than the ability to evaluate costs and benefits.”