I wanted to continue my series on a National Geographic documentary, The Science of Evil.  (A few days ago, I discussed serial killer Jeffrey’s Dahmer, and his baptism in jail following his horrific murders.)  In this post, researchers at Harvard and Princeton try to see how the brain processes moral judgment.  But how do we quantitatively define evil?

Joshua Greene, Asst Prof of Psychology, Harvard University, “So a hurricane destroys a village.  It’s a terrible thing.  But we don’t think of a hurricane as evil, right?  Well, why not?  Well, maybe we say, well the hurricane, it’s not even conscious.  Take the case of let’s say a tiger that kills a child in a village.  The tiger may in a certain sense be conscious of what it’s doing.  It has intentions in a certain sense.  It says, ‘I’m gonna go for that child instead of that child because that one looks juicer to me, right?’  But even there, we don’t say that the tiger is evil.  So what do you have to add to something that’s bad in order to make it evil?“

Princeton’s Jonathan Cohen and Harvard’s Joshua Greene believe that evil is a construction of the human, moral mind.  So for an individual to understand it requires a sense of right and wrong.  Where in us does that sense reside?  Greene and Cohen use FMRI imaging to track the mechanics of the brain when it is engages in a moral judgment.

Jonathan Cohen, Princeton University, “As a scientist, it’s hard to know exactly what we mean by good and evil.  But acts that are in our best interest and acts are not always in our best interest can be sort of carried out by the very same person.”

The participants at Princeton’s Neuroscience of Cognitive Control Lab are normal, healthy, everyday volunteers.

[Joshua Green explains experiment to patient]  “So we’re going to go into the scanner room, we’re gonna have you lie down on that table there and we’ll slide you in.  And you’re going to see text.  So the text will be describing a scenario, a situation.  So you’ll read the questions on the screen and respond as I said by pressing the buttons.  So what we’re going to be doing is taking pictures of your brain while you’re making moral decisions.”

FMRI technology can determine which parts of the brain are active during a given task by tracing the flow of oxygenated blood to a specific brain region.  By so doing, Green, Cohen, and their colleagues hope to map the moral geography of the brain.  Does the activity of neurons firing in the brain give rise to good or evil?

Cohen, “The brain ultimately is a mechanism and a mechanism is just that, it’s something that does things and what it does is a matter of the circumstances in which it finds itself and its ability to value the outcomes.  And so just like any technology or any machine, it can be used for good or for bad.”

Cohen, “Neuroscience is the study of the brain and in particular how the brain gives rise to the mind.  That is, how is it that the physical mechanisms of the brain lead us to do the sorts of things that we think of the mind as doing?”

Can we see these physical mechanisms at work?  In the FMRI scanner at Princeton, research subject Tyler faces a rudimentary dilemma designed to show increased activity in parts of the brain associated with emotion.

You are walking along a country road when you hear a plea for help coming from some roadside bushes.  You encounter a woman who is covered with blood.  The woman explains that she was attacked while hiking and asks you to take her to a nearby hospital.  Your initial inclination is to help this woman, who will probably die if she does not get to the hospital soon.  However, if you help this woman, her blood will ruin your designer suit.  Is it appropriate for you to leave this woman by the side of the road?

No, it’s not appropriate.  Tyler’s answer comes quickly and is consistent with a majority of Green and Cohen’s data.

Greene, “Most people say ‘No, that’s not okay.’  Well, my theory developed with John Cohen and other people is that on the one hand, we have an intuitive emotional response that makes us say, ‘No, terrible.  Don’t do that.’  And if you look at the brain data, that is lots of people answering lots of questions like this and averaging it all together, what you see, you see increased activity in parts of the brain that are associated with emotion and what we call social cognition.”

Green and Cohen’s findings suggest that if the woman were a faceless person on the other side of the world, dying in the Congo, for example, Tyler might have felt okay leaving her by the side of the road.  But because she’s right there in front of him, he has an intuitive emotional response that tells him to help her and stops him from committing what many would call evil.  But what happens in the brain when the moral dilemma is not so trivial as the dilemma of the designer suit and the dying stranger?  What happens when an apparently evil act is paradoxically in the best interest of others?

Cohen, “One of the advantages of being able to do brain imaging, is to be able to see which parts of the brain are coming into play at different points in time and under different sorts of, in response to different sorts of decisions.:

At Princeton’s Neuroscience of Cognitive Control Lab, Jonathan Cohen and Joshua Greene are working to isolate the mechanics of moral judgment, our sense of right and wrong, by mapping patterns in neurological processes.

Greene, “Moral decision-making is not really one kind of process.  It’s two rather different processes and sometimes they compete.  “

Research subject Heather faces the second dilemma, one designed to pit opposing forces in her brain against one another.

Enemy soldiers have taken over your village.  They have orders to kill all remaining civilians.  You and some of your towns’ people have sought refuge in a house.  Outside you hear the voices of soldiers who come to search the house for valuables.  Your baby begins to cry loudly.  You cover her mouth to block the sound.  If you remove your hand from her mouth, her crying will summon the attention of the soldiers who will kill you, your child and the others hiding out in the house.  To save yourself and the others, you must smother your child to death.  Is it appropriate for you to smother your child, in order to save yourself and the other towns’ people?

Greene, “Sometimes people say ‘yes’, and sometimes people say ‘no.’

Will Heather kill her baby to save the village?  And exactly what kind of battle is raging in her normal, healthy brain?

Where does our sense of right and wrong come from?  For Cohen and Greene, the answer begins by mapping the mechanisms of moral judgment in our brains.  In the FMRI scanner at Princeton, research subject heather faces a life and death dilemma and must make a decision.

Is it appropriate for you to smother your child, in order to save yourself and the other towns’ people?

Greene, “What we find is that when people say ‘yes,’ well, you see more activity in that dorsal lateral pre-frontal cortex.  In other words, it’s that cognitive control part of the brain that’s overriding the emotional response.  You have an emotional response that says, ‘No, don’t do it.  Terrible, Horrible.’  But then this other response that says, ‘Look, everybody’s gonna die if you don’t do this.  At least you could save yourself and the other people.’  And that quote-unquote ‘rational’ or more ‘calculative,’ or analytical side of your brain steps in, at least for some people.  And when it does step in, you can see the trace of that in the brain.”

In this case, Heather’s answer is ‘No.’ She would not smother her child.  If she is like others, her brain scan exhibits increased activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, suggesting that her decision was based on an emotional sense of right and wrong.  The question arises, how does understanding the machinery of moral decision making impact life beyond the hallowed halls of science?PCC

Greene, “What happens if we look at the brain and after a while, it becomes clear that all human behavior is ultimately just a product of neurons firing at each other and ultimately controlling muscles that ultimately constitute our behavior?  Is that good, it that bad if the soul is out of a job?  Well, some people obviously would think that’s terrible that it’s the worst thing we could find out is that we don’t have souls.  But, it could also be a wonderful thing.  The thought is that belief in souls can do a lot of damage.  Perhaps the most extreme example, take the events of 9/11.  The people who carried out those hijackings, they believed that they were, their bodies were going to die.  But they believed that their souls were going to live a very pleasant existence.  Could they have been brought to do that if it weren’t for the belief that they were, that their souls were participating in a higher purpose?”

Greene and Cohen’s work is in its infancy.  But the early results point towards a future in science may confront the notion of evil with reason in a neuroscience lab far from the heated rhetoric of religion and politics.

What do you think of Greene and Cohen’s work?

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