Mirror Neuron Activity Predicts People’s Decision-Making in Moral Dilemmas, Study Finds


Source: University of California, Los Angeles

Summary: The results of a new study suggest that scientists could make a good guess based on how the brain responds when people watch someone else experience pain.


Mirror neurons are one of the most important discoveries of neuroscience. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire equally when someone performs an action or simply watches someone else perform the same action. Mirror neurons play a vital role in how people learn through mimicry and feel empathy for others. Mirror neurons are responsible for a phenomenon called neural resonance – we wince while seeing someone experience pain. The results of a new UCLA study suggest that scientists could make a good guess based on how the brain responds when people watch someone else experience pain. The study found that those responses predict whether people will be inclined to avoid causing harm to others when facing moral dilemmas. The study findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience.

Mirror neurons play a vital role in how people learn through mimicry and feel empathy for others.

Researchers found that the brain’s inferior frontal cortex (circled) is more active in people who are more averse to harming others when facing moral dilemmas. Credit: UCLA Health

To find out, researchers showed 19 volunteers 2 videos: one of a hypodermic needle piercing a hand, and another of a hand being gently touched by a cotton swab. During both, the scientists used a functional MRI machine to measure activity in the volunteers’ brains. Researchers later asked the participants how they would behave in a variety of moral dilemmas, including the scenario involving the crying baby during wartime, the prospect of torturing another person to prevent a bomb from killing several other people and whether to harm research animals in order to cure AIDS. The research team hypothesized that people who had greater neural resonance than the other participants while watching the hand-piercing video would also be less likely to choose to silence the baby in the hypothetical dilemma, and that proved to be true. But the researchers found no correlation between people’s brain activity and their willingness to hypothetically harm one person in the interest of the greater good.

The study confirms that genuine concern for others’ pain plays a causal role in moral dilemma judgments. In other words, a person’s refusal to silence the baby is due to concern for the baby, not just the person’s own discomfort in taking that action. Dr. Lacoboni’s next project will explore whether a person’s decision-making in moral dilemmas can be influenced by decreasing or enhancing activity in the areas of the brain that were targeted in the current study.

Dr. Marco lacoboni said, “It would be fascinating to see if we can use brain stimulation to change complex moral decisions through impacting the amount of concern people experience for others’ pain”, “It could provide a new method for increasing concern for others’ well-being.”


More Information: Leonardo Christov-Moore et al, “Deontological Dilemma Response Tendencies and Sensorimotor Representations of Harm to Others”, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience (2017). DOI: 10.3389/fnint.2017.00034


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