By Chelsey Taylor-Vaughn
Neuroscientist Cendri Hutcherson of the California Institute of Technology shared her research on morality in relation to the brain with Malina Mamigonian’s Ethics class last Tuesday.
Hutcherson posed the question of “What it means to be moral?”
Hutcherson said there are five distinct types of morality, including harm, fairness, respect for authority, loyalty and purity.
“There’s a tendency to think about the brain as nature,” Hutcherson said. “But it turns out the brain is not just nature, it’s also a function of nurture, it’s a product of your environment and your experiences. The brain is largely a muscle, and just like muscles, the brain grows.”
Hutcherson analyzes the human brain using an MRI machine, which inserts the patient into a giant magnet that allows neuroscientists to see the amount of blood that flows from different parts of the brain by measuring the amount of iron in the blood.
“It tells us things that people don’t necessarily want to tell us,” Hutcherson said.
“If a person has damage in the areas of the brain that facilitate moral decision-making, are they to be held responsible for their actions?” Hutcherson said.
In a PowerPoint presentation, Hutcherson explained several case studies of people who had hindrances in a part of their brain, including Charles Whitman, who had a “good life, until one day he went berserk” and killed his mother, wife and himself, Hutcherson said. Before Whitman’s suicide, he left a note that asked for an autopsy to be performed after his death. The operation found a giant tumor pressing against Whitman’s amygdala, which is part of the brain that is “linked to emotion, fear and aggression,” Hutcherson said.
“It was an organic way of stimulating the amygdala, which led him to behave in an irrational and unethical sense,” Hutcherson said. “He couldn’t help himself,”
She advised the class against “riding motorcycles, because it is the easiest way to destroy this part of your brain,” referring to the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is located “in the front of the brain, that goes right back from your forehead and right down the center and it is important for moral behavior,” she said.
People who have damage to the medial orbitofrontal cortex “can tell you what’s right and what’s wrong, but it is very hard for them to then take that knowledge, and use it to be a good person,” she said.