Very sharp scan of the human brain in greenWhat does brain activity tell us about feelings of guilt or justification of extreme violence? A recent study sheds some light on the neuroscience of moral behaviour; an important subject for psychotherapeutic practice and our understanding of human decision making in general.

In the study, conducted at Monach University in Australia, researchers examined people in an imaginary violent setting and looking at how brain activity varies when killing is either justified or not.

This study was supervised by Dr Pascal Molenberghs at School of Psychological Sciences and was accepted to publishing on 4 March, 2015 in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The research team claim that the results of the study provide with unique insight into how normal individuals can become aggressors in specific situations such as war.

Participants in the study had to imagine themselves as perpetrators whilst watching ‘first-person perspective’ animated videos where they shot enemy soldiers (‘justified violence’) and innocent civilians (‘unjustified violence’). Their brain activity was recorded via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while the video games were played.

Dr Molenberghs states: “When participants imagined themselves shooting civilians compared to soldiers, greater activation was found in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), an important brain area involved in making moral decisions.” He adds: “The more guilt participants felt about shooting civilians, the greater the response in the lateral OFC. When shooting enemy soldiers, no activation was seen in lateral OFC… Effective connectivity analyses further revealed an increased coupling between lateral OFC and the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) when shooting civilians.”

The outlined findings suggest the neural mechanisms typically active when harming others, such as the OFC, become less active (TPJ) when the violence against a particular group is seen as justified.

Dr Molenberghs explains: “The findings show that when a person is responsible for what they see as justified or unjustified violence, they will have different feelings of guilt associated with that—for the first time we can see how this guilt relates to specific brain activation.”

Further studies of the research team will focus on how people become desensitized to violence and how personality and group membership of both perpetrator and victim influence these processes.


Original source: P. Molenberghs, C. Ogilvie, W. R. Louis, J. Decety, J. Bagnall, P. G. Bain. The neural correlates of justified and unjustified killing: an fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2015; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsv027

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