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Follow your Heart…or is it your Brain? A Book Review of the Neurobiology of Human Values

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The short book Neurobiology of Human Values was edited by J.-P. Changeux, A.R. Damasio, W. Singer and Y. Christen (all of whom are senior and influential neuroscientists) and comprises 12 essays, each composed for The Symposium by several contributors. Organized by the Foundation Ispen in Paris on January 24, 2005, The Symposium was one of the first events seeking to provide an overview of the neurobiology of human values.

Man has been contemplating the basis of his own ethical and aesthetic values for centuries. Many scientists and researchers have avoided this field of investigation; in the name of seeking an objective truth, it has been assumed that the scientific approach should naturally avoid normative truths such as feelings and consciousness. Until very recently, such a mindset has kept such issues in the hands of philosophers, moralists and theologists. It has even been said that the purpose of moral philosophy is to protect us from science. Before having taken this class, I must admit that I was of relatively the same mindset. However, the rise of neuroscience and other similar disciplines has thankfully made it so that a more objective and experimental approach to the issue of human values is available to us.

This book is rather revolutionary in its ideas and as a result of its recent publication is very up-to-date on the new technological and neurobiological discoveries and research. The data contained in this book not only implies the existence of a cerebral substrate of moral behavior, but also that this behavior developed by evolutionary selection. The book does not by any means intend to draw final conclusions and readily admits that the field of science is only beginning to emerge, but rather successfully brings together essays by researchers from around the world who are able present original and thought-provoking data and thoughts about the neurobiological nature of human values.

Each essay addresses a different aspect of and question about human values, such as social instincts, disorders of social conduct and empathy, and more or less successfully links them to neurobiological processes or parts of the brain, such as mirror neurons, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortices. However, there were two essays which I found to be particularly interesting and pertinent to what we learned in class; these discussed the emotion and cognition in moral judgment and neural substrates of affective style and value.

For many years, the dominant models of moral judgment have been ‘cognitive’ in nature, treating it primarily as a reasoning process. Joshua Greene, in his essay titled Emotion and Cognition in Moral Judgment: Evidence from Neuroimaging, points out that in “recent years, there has been more of a focus on unconscious processes and implicit attitudes (Greene, 57). This focus is a result of, among other things, the use of fMRIs to study the neural bases of moral decision-making and the resulting data which support a theory according to which both ‘cognitive’ AND emotional processes play a crucial and at times mutually competitive role in moral judgment. In order to better demonstrate this, Greene conducted an experiment in which he presented to subjects two moral dilemmas, respectively known as the trolley dilemma and the footbridge dilemma:

A runaway trolley is headed for five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. The only way to save them is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley onto an alternate set of tracks where it will kill one person instead of five. Ought you to turn the trolley in order to save five people at the expense of one? The general consensus from the people in the experiment is yes. Now the subjects are asked to consider a similar problem, the footbridge dilemma. As before, a trolley threatens to kill five people. You are standing next to a large stranger on a footbridge that spans the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. In this scenario, the only way to save the five people is to push this stranger off the bridge, onto the tracks below. He will die if you do this, but his body will stop the trolley from reaching the others. Ought you to save the five others by pushing this stranger to his death? Here the consensus is that it is not okay to save five lives at the expense of one.

Taken together, these two dilemmas create a puzzle for moral philosophers: What makes it morally acceptable to sacrifice one life to save five in the trolley dilemma but not in the footbridge dilemma? Greene seems to believe that when harmful actions are sufficiently impersonal, they fail to push our emotional buttons, despite their seriousness, and as a result we think about them in a more detached, actuarial fashion. Conversely, “people tend to have emotional responses to personal moral violations, responses that incline them to judge against performing those actions.” (Greene, 60) That means that someone who judges a personal moral violation to be ‘appropriate’ (ex. someone who says it’s okay to push the man off the bridge in the footbridge case) will most likely have to override an emotional response in order to do it. What arises from this theory is that what we do in the name if morality is more emotional than it is rational; humans, according to this theory, operate in accordance with certain automatic, powerful assessments which require a lot of mental work to overcome. 

While I find the comparison between the two moral dilemmas to be fascinating, it is my personal opinion that Greene wrongly presents the cognitive and emotional sides of our brains and ourselves as being constantly in opposition with one another; according to him, if you answer that the man should be pushed off, you are allowing the ‘cognitive’ cost-benefit analysis to dominate the proponent emotional response. I cannot help but believe, however, that there are definite examples of moral judgments which appeal to both our emotions and our cognitions. An individual’s behavior seems to be capable of being determined by an interaction of these two processes.

I thought that this idea was pertinent to one of the last things that we discussed in class, which was the notion of ‘free will’ and whether or not we actually have it. In the same way that in the footbridge dilemma you can instinctively feel one way but respond differently and believe in your response, so are you capable of recreating and bettering yourself, withholding your actions until a better alternative presents itself. Another question that arises from this experiment (which Greene fails to pose) is whether, if our emotions are so influential in our moral judgments, it would be possible to determine peoples’ actions by manipulating their emotions.

Another essay in the book, titled Neural Substrates of Affective Style and Value and written by Richard J. Richardson, attempts to understand the nature of and the reasons for the pronounced variability among individuals in their reactions to emotional incentives and in their dispositional mood. Richardson defines these individual differences as ‘affective style’. He claims that these differences developed through evolution and are advantageous to individuals living in groups and his essay focuses on “the proximal mechanisms that underlie such individual differences, with a focus on well-being.” (Richardson, 68) According to him, one of the main components of affective style is the capacity to regulate negative emotions and to decrease the duration of this negative affect once it has arisen. His research has determined that the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala play an important role in this regulatory process. However, there is less extensive data on the changes in the brain that are produced by the practice of methods that are specifically designed to facilitate this well-being. Richardson uses the example of meditation to demonstrate the ways in which an activity can explicitly train the mind and create the emotion of happiness by deliberately choosing to focus on positive mental states and resisting negative mental states.

In a study that Richardson conducted in 2003, changes in brain electrical activity and immune function were examined following an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation. Subjects were randomly assigned to a meditation group or to a control group, and each group was tested before the one group’s eight-week training program, as well as four months following the end of the program. Subjects in the meditation group were found to show significantly larger increases left-sided anterior activation compared to their control group counterparts. “These findings suggest that training procedures designed explicitly to facilitate well-being result in demonstrable and predictable changes in brain and immune function.” (Richardson, 83) This would suggest that the brain is not static; it is adaptable and therefore can be transformed to facilitate a preferable mental situation. Indeed, the use of such methods could be the answer to disorders and conditions that we discussed in class, such as anxiety disorders, depression, and phobias.

This book as a whole allowed me to better understand the ways in which the structure and functioning of the brain made possible certain ethical and moral judgments, and also how Darwinian evolution and the naturality of social and moral behavior are a part of our human values. Whereas it does contain a lot of theoretical thought and at times sounds more like a philosophy book than a neurobiology report, the book does create many very interesting and important questions about the relationship between the brain and our notions of morality, something which very few other books have attempted to do. Human values are not something that we specifically discussed in class, but emotions, notions of right/wrong, rationality and social disorders play an important role in many of the aspects of neurobiology which we analyzed over the semester. Although the book by no means attempts to have me do so, I was left reluctantly believing in Emily Dickinson’s famous poem more than ever. 

Works Cited:

Changeux, J.-P., Damasio, A.R., Singer, W., Christen, Y., ed. Neurobiology of Human Values. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2005