Scanning the Brain for Its Moral Center

A scientist uses brain scans and experiments to find the brain's moral center.

ByABC News
May 2, 2007, 9:16 AM

May 2, 2007 — -- As I changed into a surgical gown, I felt an ever increasing sense of anxiety. Even the unrestrained laughter of my producer colleague, who observed me wearing the ill-fitting dress and a pair of huge protective goggles, did nothing to reduce the stress. I was about to undergo my first-ever brain scan.

The purpose was to test the radical assertion of professor Marc Hauser that all of us are born with an instinctive sense of right and wrong. Hauser is a biological anthropologist at Harvard and the author of "Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong."

And Hauser has been using brain scans, along with other experimental tools, to support his thesis.

Hauser, who uses the model of Noam Chomsky's theory of generative grammar, believes that just as humans have evolved a particular quality that enables us to acquire language, we've also developed what he calls "moral grammar."

He has subjected adults to a series of moral dilemmas, while scanning their brains. Hauser noticed that certain parts of the brain, which are traditionally associated with emotion, tended not to react until after a moral judgment had been made.

"I want to make a similar argument that we have acquired through evolution a universal moral grammar that allows us to acquire many possible moral systems," Hauser said. "I think the implication is that we're born with principles that will guide us towards what is right or wrong."

As I lay in the huge MRI scanner at a laboratory in Boston, I was subjected to a number of moral dilemmas. One told the story of Josephine and her younger sister who are playing in the bathroom where a hair straightening iron is resting near the sink.

Josephine's mother has turned the iron off so that it is no longer hot, but Josephine does not know this. She continues to allow her little sister to play by the sink.

I was then asked to respond within four seconds: Josephine allowing her sister to play by the sink was either "forbidden" or "permissible?" I responded to the question in much the same way as previous subjects: I felt that Josephine's decision to allow her sister to continue playing was forbidden.