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Just Say No? September 8, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

Another break-through by neuroscientists concerning ethics and the brain: Marcel Brass from Germany’s Max Planck Institute and Patrick Haggard from University College of London (yes, the place where Jeremy Bentham is still sitting in his mahogany closet) have just published their findings that a center in the brain acts as a “second thought” or self-control mechanism that allows us to stop what we were doing or intended to do. This looks like evidence that we have freedom to choose, as a scientific fact! This area is in the dorsal fronto-median cortex—the area just above and between your eyes—and has been documented through a series of brain scans of 15 young healthy adults.

            Now whether localized brain activity actually proves free will, or a “free won’t” (like it is being dubbed), is a matter for philosophers to decide, not neuroscientists, because it is a philosophical question whether what feels like a free decision is, in the final end, exclusively a result of environmental and hereditary causes. But it seems to me that now we have at least clear evidence that we are not automata, and that if our actions are determined by environmental and hereditary factors, these factors are so complex that we are justified in assuming that our decision process is real. In other words, soft determinism is looking better all the time.

            But that is not the only fun stuff coming out of this research. For one thing, we should compare it with that other ground-breaking announcement last spring by Michael Koenigs, Antonio Damasio and others (see previous blogs) that our natural tendency goes toward not hurting other human beings. Their findings pretty much stated that if you’re capable of overriding your natural empathy, there must be something wrong with you (in other words, people who choose to hurt a few to save the many must be morally deficient. This upset a lot of utilitarians, including Peter Singer. Even I, who only consider myself a part-time utilitarian, was disturbed). But now compare this to the newly discovered stop-mechanism: Neuroscientists can tell us we have a natural tendency to act out of empathy, and now that we also have a built-in self-control mechanism. At first glance it looks like they go hand in hand: If we happen to be about to act in a way that may harm others, something between our eyes makes us stop! Or we’re about to do something that may harm ourselves, such as smoking after we’ve tried to stop, and the self-control kicks in, so we stop—sometimes. That’s the reason researchers call this mechanism our conscience, and it’s certainly fascinating all by itself.

But wait a minute—what if it is the other way around? What if we are about to act with empathy, as our instinct bids us—and all of a sudden the self-control mechanism makes us stop? Two answers here: (1) it could be because we’re selfish, and realize the risk we may be exposing ourselves to, so we don’t run into the burning building to save the child after all, but call 9-1-1 instead. But that assumes that it is the selfish act that make us feel fulfilled, and Koenigs and Damasio have showed that our brain actually enjoys helping others! Let’s look at (2) which is even more interesting: Perhaps we realize that as much as it may make us feel good to act with empathy, instinctively, sometimes it may be the wrong thing to do (because we’re mistaken, or because acting with empathy now will create a greater risk later—remember the Nazi sniper they let live in Saving Private Ryan?), and our self-control mechanism makes us stop. And what is really interesting, the “stop” act makes us feel frustrated, not good, according to the scientists—but we do it, anyway. Now that’s the real revelation: We have a brain mechanism that does not make us feel good, but it is highly active in the brain even so. So sometimes we may stop a harmful act because we realize it is wrong. Fine. And sometimes we may stop doing a benevolent act because we, in the last moment, just don’t want to. Okay. But sometimes we may stop ourselves from doing a benevolent act because, in the greater scheme of things, it will have undesirable consequences (utilitarianism), or possibly because we can’t universalize the act (deontology). And it doesn’t make us feel good to make that decision, at least not right then and there. My preliminary conclusion? We may have found Socrates’ little Daimon who told him what to do…The seat of morality may well be this stop mechanism rather than the warm and fuzzy empathy. But that of course leads to other classical questions such as, are there universally right reasons for the stop-mechanism to be engaged?

Besides, I got a real kick out of reading that the key brain area is above and between our eyes. Asian mysticism, anyone? The “Third Eye”? The Little Golden Egg? Hmmm……

Thanks to my student Tiffany for telling me about this research and e-mailing me the article!



1. chris - September 10, 2007

hello philosophy on the mesa,

just dropped by to check out the latest entry in your blog…

I appreciate what the experts are saying on free will, I just choose not to believe it…

hope all is well.


2. Huan - September 11, 2007

Amazing find, i gotta say i have had a special encounter with this stop mechanism. At the time i was under the influence of something, i’ll leave what it is up to the imagination i guess. Anyways i was thinking extremely fast about all kinds of things, and i always came to a stop. I was constantly restricting myself from going further with certain thoughts, because at the time i guess i thought it was going to overwhelm my brain heh. After a while the “stop mechanism” began to manifest itself in a line of Chinese characters, me having lived in china i’m guessing it was just a metaphor for authority. So every time the stop mechanism would “activate” the characters would appear like some kind of warning sign.
I suppose this stop mechanism can just as well be seen as the inhibitor of free will as opposed to free will itself?

3. Dwight Furrow - September 13, 2007

I must confess to being underwhelmed by the philosophical implications of this data. Where else would we expect to find the mechanisms of self-control if not in the brain? This discovery is obviously good for neuro-science and it may have therapeutic benefit, but I don’t think it tells us anything about free will or morality.

It seems to me that contemporary indeterminists would grant that the mechanisms of self-control are located in the brain. The question is whether the input-output relations to the mechanism exhibit some degree of indeterminacy. This research doesn’t answer that question, although it provides a basis for further inquiry.

I also do not see the importance of this for moral theory, or how this mechanism could be the “seat” of morality. Self-control may be a necessary condition for a moral act but it is not sufficient. There are lots of moral monsters running around with exquisite self-control. And philosophical accounts of self-control, e.g. Frankfurt’s, are much more robust than a mechanism to inhibit impulses, involving second-order desires, identity-conferring commitments, etc.

The moral quality of an action is determined by whether it is good or bad (or right or wrong). I would argue that the moral quality of an act is, in part, determined by its having the proper relationship to our motivational states. But this research doesn’t tell us what this proper relationship is, and I am not convinced this is a question that science alone can answer.

4. Melinda - September 14, 2007

This information made me think about some other (relatively) recent neuroscientific research focused on structures with the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex which is seen to substantiate the claim that there is a physiological basis for a “moral sense” in humans, and to a lesser degree, in some subspecies of apes: From a 2003 NEW YORK TIMES article by Sandra Blakeslee entitled “Humanity? Maybe It’s in the Wiring,”: “…Dr. John M. Allman, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, and his colleagues have delved below the level of brain structure to identify a special class of neuron — spindle cells — that are relatively enormous cells that collect information from one region of the brain and send it on to other regions. They function like air traffic controllers for emotions. They seem to lie at the heart of the human social emotion circuitry, including a moral sense….In brain imaging studies, it lights up when people look at romantic partners; perceive unfairness, deception or uncertainty about rewards; experience embarrassment; or, if they are mothers, hear infants cry.”
I find it interesting to have a start on proof that our moral tendencies are not just the result of training or experience that must be intentionally invoked when “doing the right thing”; we are, in fact, hardwired to be moral! These spindle cells are apparently rare neurons–“5 to 40 times as abundant in humans as in apes” (ibid.)–that may play an important role in the judgments we make about right and wrong. It is also interesting to note that these cells are not present in newborns, but develop as the child grows, and hypothetically, as the moral sense develops. Blakeslee ends with “No neuroscientist would make a leap to say that this is where the conscience or sense of free will is lodged. But if one imagined a single location for these fundamental aspects of human nature, this would be the place.”

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