More than a century ago, a young scientist named William Wilkins published his groundbreaking paper on the nature of human consciousness.
Now, a new paper from Harvard University researchers shows how consciousness, and not just the workings of the brain, may be at the root of human morality.
The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, looks at how moral values affect our brains, as well as the brain’s ability to understand our desires.
“We know that the brain is very good at determining our moral preferences,” said Michael J. DeLong, the William J. and Mary professor of philosophy and neuroscience who led the study.
“If we’re concerned about moral judgments and moral values, we’re more likely to say yes to things that seem to benefit us, like saving the planet, or having a better life for ourselves and our children.
The question is: Are we in a state of mind that we’re choosing between those two?”
To test the theory, DeLong and his team asked 22 participants to imagine they were playing a game of telephone.
A person would call in, ask them to please stop, and then tell them to return the call.
If they answered yes to the first call, the call was a win.
But if they answered no to the second call, they would lose their call and have to try again.
If you think about it, it’s kind of the same as when you answer the phone and a stranger calls.
You say, ‘I’d like you to stop.
I’m calling to ask you to please leave.
You’re being rude.’
So what we’re saying is that the right thing to do in our minds is the same thing as the right action to take in our own lives.
This is one of the ways that our brains work.
If the researchers had simply asked participants to tell a stranger to stop, they might have discovered that the person on the other end of the phone didn’t really feel threatened or hurt by their decision.
Instead, the researchers thought, it was more likely that the participant was just using their own moral code to decide whether to answer the call or not.
But after the participants were shown a series of moral values that were rated as having a positive impact on their decision, their moral codes did not matter.
The researchers also found that participants who believed in moral values were less likely to be swayed by other people’s judgments.
“They’re not motivated to make a moral judgment,” DeLong said.
“The reason that you can’t influence other people is because your moral code is your own.”
What is moral code?
The researchers believe that our moral codes are formed by our brains.
De Long says it’s a complex network of neural connections, which, in turn, form moral attitudes.
He likens the brain to a giant social network.
“Our brains are like the brain of a social network,” he said.
When people say, you know what I’m doing, they’re trying to get us to act in a way that feels good.
That’s called an attitude.
But when they say, I’m going to save the planet or do good things, they are trying to convince us that this is something that we should do.
So they’re creating a moral code for us.
And if we think about our moral code as being a code that we create and stick to for a long period of time, it becomes very powerful.
“What makes moral code powerful?
The research shows that our ethical beliefs are not only formed by the brain but also that we use them as a tool to decide our actions.
For example, people with a bad moral code could say, “I’m going too far and I should be ashamed of myself,” but not say, “‘I’m doing what I feel is right.’ “
This is where our moral beliefs come from,” De Long said.
For example, people with a bad moral code could say, “I’m going too far and I should be ashamed of myself,” but not say, “‘I’m doing what I feel is right.’
We just use those codes.”
When the researchers compared the brains of participants who had a negative moral code with those who did not, they found that the participants with a negative code showed less activation in the frontal cortex, the area of the brains that controls our perception of self and the self’s intentions.
In other words, people who had negative codes had less brain activity in the brain areas associated with self-control and the ability to resist impulses.
De La Long said the research shows the brain can use our moral values to help us make decisions that affect others.
“If you’re in a situation where you’re making a decision about how to behave, or how to act, you are trying your best to convince yourself that it’s good,” he explained.
“You’re trying your hardest to convince others that you’re doing the right things.”
DeLong said this study, like previous studies, provides a new understanding of how our brains are shaped by our culture.
“It’s important to remember that this research