May 29, 2013

Do Utilitarian Moral Judges Have Lower Levels of Empathic Concern?
Liane Young said when people must choose whether to harm one person to save many, emotional processes typically support one type of non-utilitarian response, such as “don’t harm the individual,” while controlled processes support the utilitarian response, such as “save the greatest number of lives.” “Our study showed that utilitarian judgment may arise not simply from enhanced cognitive control, but also from diminished emotional processing and reduced empathy,” she said. (Janice Wood, Psych Central)

Alzheimer’s Disease and Emotional Contagion
Researchers found for the first time that individuals with Alzheimer’s show a high level of “emotional contagion,” the unconscious ability to mimic another person’s emotions. And as the disease progresses, destroying more brain cells and cognitive skills, this emotional empathy gets stronger, allowing patients to become more sensitive—and more vulnerable—to the feelings, words, and behaviors of other people. (Virginia Hughes, Only Human, National Geographic)

How Money Can Impact Social Relationships
Subtle reminders of money can affect the way people behave in social settings, causing them to be less engaged with others, suggests new research. (Denise Chow, LiveScience)

Genizah Project
The idea is to harness technology to help reassemble more than 100,000 document fragments collected across 1,000 years that reveal details of Jewish life along the Mediterranean, including marriage, medicine, and mysticism. (Jodi Rudoren, The New York Times)

Time Reborn

Past things were real once but have ceased to exist. Future things don’t yet exist; they will become real only when the time comes. This is the view that most physicists deny and the view that theoretical physicist Lee Smolin proposes to demonstrate in his book. For him the past is gone; the future is open: “The fact that it is always some moment in our perception, and that we experience that moment as one of a flow of moments, is not an illusion.” Timelessness, eternity, the four-dimensional space-time loaf—these are the illusions. (James Gleick, The New York Review of Books)

March 5, 2012

License to Sin
Anyone who has ever devoured a triple-chocolate brownie after an intense workout knows how tempting it can be to indulge after behaving virtuously. A new study suggests, however, that we often apply this thought process to inappropriate scenarios, giving ourselves license to act in unhealthy or antisocial ways. (Ashley Welch, Scientific American Mind)

Risks of Loneliness
Loneliness can send a person down a path toward bad health, and even more intense loneliness, studies have shown. But while some have assumed the culprit was a dearth of others to remind a person to take care of himself or herself, new research suggests there’s a direct biological link between being lonely and ill health. (Katherine Gammon, LiveScience)

Emotional Oracle Effect
Our emotions are neither stupid nor omniscient. They are imperfect oracles. Nevertheless, a strong emotion is a reminder that, even when we think we know nothing, our brain knows something. That’s what the feeling is trying to tell us. (Jonah Lehrer, Frontal Cortex, Wired)

Eye on the Lie
Researchers at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York claim their video-analysis software can analyze eye movement successfully to identify whether or not a subject is fibbing 82.5 percent of the time. (Larry Greenemeier, Scientific American)

The Deep Future
It’s fashionable to be pessimistic about our prospects, yet our species may very well endure for at least 100,000 years. So what’s in store for us? We now have the perspective to identify the forces and trends that have shaped humanity and the Earth to date. With this knowledge, we can make intelligent predictions about what is to come. (New Scientist)

Where Alvin Plantinga Goes Wrong on Science and Naturalism
Alva Noë: Alvin Plantinga’s idea that science is in conflict with its own worldview rests on a mischaracterization of that worldview. (13.7: Cosmos and Culture, NPR)

Liane Young

Liane Young, an associate professor of psychology at Boston College, recently won a prestigious national award for early-career scientists for her work studying moral decision-making. (Karen Weintraub, The Boston Globe)

How Does the Brain Make Moral Judgments?

What’s right and what’s wrong? When we judge the actions of other people, we tend to do so based on two things: the consequences of those actions and their underlying intentions. In other words, we try to get inside people’s heads and infer why they did what they did—and how well they understood why they did it.

But what if we change the way our brains work? Would it change how we judge the moral culpability of others? Liane Young, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, decided to find out.

Past studies have shown that an area of the brain called the right temporoparietal junction shows more activity when we try to reason about another person’s thoughts and beliefs. So Young and colleagues figured that, if they disrupted how well the RTPJ functions, this might alter moral judgments of someone’s action that rely on assumptions about their intention (The Great Beyond, Nature).

It turns out they were right. When the scientists applied magnetic pulses to the skull near the RTPJ, they found that people judged other’s actions based solely on consequences, ignoring intentions and beliefs, in a manner similar to how young children reason about such things. To them, a “happy ending” makes a morally questionable action OK—even if that ending is just a lucky outcome. A man who let his girlfriend walk across an unsafe bridge, for example, “had done nothing wrong” if she made it across safely. As the researchers explain it, “When activity in the RTPJ is disrupted, participants’ moral judgments shift toward a ‘no harm, no foul’ mentality” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

Alarming stuff. The research suggests that our moral judgments can be altered—in milliseconds—with something as simple as a magnetic signal. As Young herself points out in a write-up of the study:

You think of morality as being a really high-level behavior. To be able to apply (a magnetic field) to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.

Yet it’s only disturbing if you view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, a psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn’t accurate, he says. “Moral judgment is just a brain process,” he says. “That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain” (NPR).

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