Monday, June 16, 2008

The Right and The Good and The Insula

‘ narrow [banausisch] a matter it would be if there were cells of morality and immorality, such as virtue cells, murder cells, or cells responsible for rage. Things will surely be more complicated.’

-German psychiatrist Julius Koch (1894: 40–1), as quoted by Verplaetse (2004)

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

-George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905

Children of Uganda supports two orphanages in Uganda, as well as children living with HIV-positive widowed mothers, and has over 600 children under its care.

Localization studies of morality (see Dolan, 1999 on the "neurology of morals") date back to the days of Franz Joseph Gall and John M. Harlow, the doctor who treated Phineas Gage1. Gall's phrenology was largely discredited by the mid-19th century. That didn't stop Moritz Benedikt, however, from postulating that morality was located in the occipital lobes! (Verplaetse, 2004). Among Benedikt's contemporaries,
The localization of morality was discussed with equal reserve. Criminal anthropologists who looked eagerly for neurological and biological mechanisms to explain human immorality and criminal behaviour unanimously denied the existence of an isolated moral centre or moral organ that might be pathologically damaged. The French criminal anthropologists Gabriel Tarde and Alexandre Lacassagne dismissed the idea of a localizable moral sense as impossible or even ridiculous (Lacassagne, 1908: vii; Tarde, 1899: 240). ... Hans Kurella firmly asked that criminal anthropology should entirely abandon old-fashioned concepts such as an innate conscience, whether it was thought of as a localizable brain centre or not (Kurella, 1893: 204).
But really, the occipital lobes? Where did he get that idea? Verplaetse (2004) continues, quoting Benedikt:
When I freed the first brain (the brain of a robbing murderer) from the cranial cavity, his crime became clear to me with an unprecedentedly anatomical transparency. The occipital lobes did not cover the cerebellum and in this discovery I discerned the crucial distinction between man and animal.
OK, then. Onward and upward, to 2008 and the neural encoding of distributive justice.
How Fairness Is Wired in the Brain

...researchers at the California Institute of Technology have discovered that reason struggles with emotion to find equitable solutions, and have pinpointed the region of the brain where this takes place. The concept of fairness, they found, is processed in the insular cortex, or insula, which is also the seat of emotional reactions.

"The fact that the brain has such a robust response to unfairness suggests that sensing unfairness is a basic evolved capacity," notes Steven Quartz, an associate professor of philosophy at Caltech and author of the study, voicing a sentiment that anyone who has seen children fight over a treat can relate to.

"The movement to look into the neural basis for ethical decision making is only about seven years old," Quartz adds. "This is the first study where people made real decisions with real consequences."

So the insula is the seat of emotional reactions!! And investigations of the neural basis for ethical decision making are only 7 years old!

Lobus insularis [Insula] (labels in English and Japanese)

According to Wikipedia, the insula "lies deep to the brain's lateral surface, within the lateral sulcus which separates the temporal lobe and inferior parietal cortex. These overlying cortical areas are known as opercula (meaning "lids"), and parts of the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes form opercula over the insula."

It's a pretty large area. Besides being crowned the "seat of emotional reactions" (whatever that means), portions of the insula have been associated with interoceptive awareness, visceral sensation, pain, autonomic control, and taste, among other things... a lot of other things. Do a search of the BrainMap database using just two of the many insular foci reported by the Caltech researchers and you'll see activations related to action execution, speech, attention, language, explicit memory, working memory, and audition.

Distributive Justice and the Insula

In an earlier post, Neuroscientifically Challenged explained The Neuroscience of Distributive Justice. What is distributive justice, you might ask? goods and benefits should be dispersed throughout a society in a fair and just manner. As an extreme example of this dilemma, imagine you are commissioned to deliver 100 lbs. of food to a famine-stricken region that consists of two villages a hundred miles apart. If you deliver half of the food to the first village, then travel to the second, 30 lbs. of the food will spoil during the trip...

Philosophers have offered several solutions to debates of this nature. Utilitarianism... asserts that one’s primary goal should be the achievement of a maximal amount of good or happiness. In the situation described above, a utilitarian might opt to deliver all of the food to the first village. ..... Another approach to such a quandary is known as deontological ethics, which emphasizes not the consequences of one’s actions, but whether the actions are right or wrong, just or unjust. From a deontological perspective, it would be unjust to distribute the food unequally.
To examine the trade-off between equity and efficiency, Hsu et al. (2008) devised a task in which the participants decided on how to allocate money to children living in an orphanage in northern Uganda.
In each trial, participants decided whether varying allocations of money, denominated in meals, would be taken away from either of two groups of children; the participant’s choice was to decide from whom to take.
You can see an example of an experimental trial in this must-see movie from the paper's Supporting Online Material (embedded below).

Movie s2
No Switch Trial. Illustration of a trial where the subject does not switch the lever. Animation speed is increased for illustration purposes. See Fig. 1 for actual duration of events and screens.

During the Switch, insular activity was correlated with the level of inequity, but so was activity in the right postcentral gyrus and the medial frontal gyrus (Table S12). Before the Switch (during the Display), inequity correlated with insular activity and with activity in R Brodmann area 10, L inferior temporal gyrus, R medial frontal gyrus, L posterior cingulate, L BA 39, R superior temporal gyrus, R precuneus (Table S11)... I needn't go on.

The authors conclude:
Against utilitarianism, our results support the deontological intuition that a sense of fairness is fundamental to distributive justice but, as suggested by moral sentimentalists, is rooted in emotional processing. More generally, emotional responses related to norm violations may underlie individual differences in equity considerations and adherence to ethical rules.
I don't doubt that, really I don't.
Conservatives are Happier than Liberals Because...

...rationalization of inequality statistically mediates the relationship between conservatism and happiness. In other words, it suggests that at least part of the reason conservatives are happier than liberals is that they're more likely to rationalize inequality.
But did we need fMRI to tell us that? Is it really all in the insula? Couldn't we have more or less learned the same thing by obtaining peripheral autonomic measures, like heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conductance?


1 At least, if not earlier. Any historians of neuroscience out there?


Hsu M, Anen C, Quartz SR. (2008). The Right and the Good: Distributive Justice and Neural Encoding of Equity and Efficiency. Science, 320(5879), 1092-1095. DOI: 10.1126/science.1153651

Koch J. (1894) Die Frage nach dem geborenen Verbrecher (Ravensburg: Otto Maier).

Verplaetse J. (2004). Moritz Benedikt's (1835-1920) Localization of Morality in the Occipital Lobes: Origin and Background of a Controversial Hypothesis. History of Psychiatry, 15(3), 305-328. DOI: 10.1177/0957154X04039354

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