Wednesday July 05, 2017

Cracking our moral code: How we decide what's right and wrong

Neuroscience is helping us understand how we process moral decisions. Ideas Host Paul Kennedy had his brain scanned in an MRI machine while answering a series of moral dilemmas.

Neuroscience is helping us understand how we process moral decisions. Ideas Host Paul Kennedy had his brain scanned in an MRI machine while answering a series of moral dilemmas. (Dr. Cendri Hutcherson, director of the Toronto Decision Neuroscience Laboratory)

Listen to Full Episode 53:59

We all have a moral code -- a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong. But the reasons why we make certain decisions can quickly get fuzzy. Producer John Chipman explores why some people stick to their moral codes more stringently than others, and delves into the latest neuroimaging research to find out what it can tell us about what guides our moral decisions. **This episode originally aired December 12, 2016.  

 

For thousands of years, philosophers have been concocting moral dilemmas to puzzle over, searching for the key to our moral code. But it's only been in the past couple decades that scientists have started getting high tech, delving deep into our brains with the help of MRI brain scans, to uncover how we make moral decisions. They're interested in learning whether we're more likely to reason our way to moral decisions, or whether we act on instinct and emotion. 

John Chipman talks to two people who've made moral decisions which have entailed major life sacrifices. Linda Gibbons is an anti-abortion activist and who's spent 11 years in jail for demonstrating outside abortion clinics. No amount of reasoning will dissuade her from her activism. And Dinesh Kumar was wrongfully implicated in his infant son's death, but he pled guilty despite the fact he is innocent.

Neuroscientist Cendri Hutcherson and psychologist David Pizarro reflect on Linda and Dinesh's stories and provide insights into what we can learn from their moral struggles.

Paul Kennedy volunteered himself to be a guinea pig in a MRI test that analyzes how the brain reacts to various moral scenarios. While Paul is in the MRI machine, he has to answer 'yes' or 'no' to a range of moral dilemmas, including high-stakes questions like: "Imagine you and 50 other people are hiding in a basement from murderous Nazi soldiers. An infant hiding with you starts to cry. The crying would alert the soldiers to your location. Would you smother the infant to save the group?" Dr. Cendri Hutcherson compiles the results to see which areas of the brain activate while subjects are making those decisions.

Cracking the Moral Code-1

Paul Kennedy gets ready for his brain scan at York University's MRI Facility, located in the Sherman Health Science Research Centre. Researchers scan the brain to observe what parts are activated while making moral decisions. (Dr. Cendri Hutcherson, director of the Toronto Decision Neuroscience Laboratory)

Cracking the Moral Code-2

The first images of Paul’s brain appear. (Dr. Cendri Hutcherson, director of the Toronto Decision Neuroscience Laboratory)

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A 3-D rendition of Paul’s brain. Researchers are generally find activation in three key areas -- the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and the lateral prefrontal cortex. (Dr. Cendri Hutcherson, director of the Toronto Decision Neuroscience Laboratory)

Cracking the Moral Code - 4

When Paul tackles a high-stakes moral dilemma, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex lights up. (Dr. Cendri Hutcherson, director of the Toronto Decision Neuroscience Laboratory)


Guests in this episode: 

  • Linda Gibbons is an anti-abortion activist who spent a total of 11 years in jail for demonstrating outside abortion clinics. No amount of jail time dissuades her from her moral stance. 
     
  • Dinesh Kumar's infant son died unexpectedly. Dinesh was charged with second degree murder, but instead he accepted a plea deal with the charge and conviction of criminal negligence causing death, even though he knew he was innocent.
     
  • Cendri Hutcherson is Director of the Decision Neuroscience Laboratory and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She received degrees in psychology from Harvard (B.A.) and Stanford (Ph.D.), and spent several years as a post-doctoral scholar studying neuroeconomics at the California Institute of Technology. Her research aims to illuminate the psychological, neural, and computational bases of decision making, with a focus on how self-control influences choices about altruism, morality, and physical health.
     
  • David Pizarro is Associate Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, where he also runs the Pizarro Lab. He received his PhD in social psychology from Yale University. His primary research interests are in moral judgment, the effects of emotion on judgment, and on the overlap between these two. 

**This episode was produced by John Chipman and Nicola Luksic.