March 21, 2007
Emotional Brain Damaged Think Like Vulcans

Since I'd pull the trigger I guess I already think like a Vulcan.

Consider the following scenario: someone you know has AIDS and plans to infect others, some of whom will die. Your only options are to let it happen or to kill the person.

Do you pull the trigger?

Most people waver or say they could not, even if they agree that in theory they should. But according to a new study in the journal Nature, subjects with damage to a part of the frontal lobe make a less personal calculation.

The logical choice, they say, is to sacrifice one life to save many.

Who can read that line without flashing on Wrath Of Khan?

Spock: Don't grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh...
Kirk: ...the needs of the few.
Spock: ...Or the one. I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now. What do you think of my solution?

With the right form of brain damage you too could think like a Vulcan. Elective neurosurgery anyone?

Conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, Harvard University, Caltech and the University of Iowa, the study shows that emotion plays an important role in scenarios that pose a moral dilemma.

If certain emotions are blocked, we make decisions that – right or wrong – seem unnaturally cold.

The scenarios in the study are extreme, but the core dilemma is not: should one confront a co-worker, challenge a neighbor, or scold a loved one in the interest of the greater good?

The core dilemma would also confront a starship captain or an away team leader. Or, hey, the core dilemma might even confront a Hollywood director who has a cast member who needs to go into rehab. What to do? Kill off the character so that the rest of the cast members can survive.

A reduction in empathy and passion will put a person on the path of Vulcan logic?

A total of 30 subjects of both genders faced a set of scenarios pitting immediate harm to one person against future certain harm to many. Six had damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), a small region behind the forehead, while 12 had brain damage elsewhere, and another 12 had no damage.

The subjects with VMPC damage stood out in their stated willingness to harm an individual – a prospect that usually generates strong aversion.

“Because of their brain damage, they have abnormal social emotions in real life. They lack empathy and compassion,” said Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Caltech.

“In those circumstances most people without this specific brain damage will be torn. But these particular subjects seem to lack that conflict,” said co-senior author Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute and holder of the David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience at USC.

But if you get your VMPC damaged will you get the occasional urge to engage in pon farr?

The idea of damaging my VMPC would only become appealing to FuturePundit if it also conferred a 3 times longer lifespan as compared to humans.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 March 21 10:41 PM  Brain Ethics Law

Lou Pagnucco said at March 22, 2007 3:16 PM:

This news release put a positive spin on the effects of this type of brain damage.

Lesions or degeneration in the ventromedial frontal brain appear to be a major cause of psychopathy/sociopathy.
People with diminished electrical activity in that area will also harm others to benefit themselves.

See, for example -
"The Psychopath's Brain" at

"Distinctive Brains of Psychopaths"

"Neuroanatomical Background to Understanding the Brain of the Young Psychopath"

There are other correlates to lack of empathy like white/gray matter ratio, corpus collosum mass, ....

My guess is that low activity in this brain region is also associated with less pathological qualities, e.g., narcissism, selfishness, callousness, etc.

Given how much damage persons with these disorders can do to society, organizations, corporations or countries, why aren't they routinely screened for in prisons? Why don't we ask our political candidates or corporate CEOs to undergo exams for these physiological markers? Wouldn't investors place a higher value on a company whose CEO was not scheming to loot the treasury?

Randall Parker said at March 22, 2007 5:58 PM:


Once the brain scanning technology becomes advanced enough I can easily imagine institutional investors demanding that boards of directors require brain scans for top executives to weed out the psychopaths and otherwise unscrupulous.

Adrian Raine has already shown he can spot psychopaths with brain scans. We need to speed up the brain scan work to make it more reliable for spotting problematic brain types.

undergroundman said at March 24, 2007 6:19 PM:

I could easily pull the trigger.

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