Fear and the Biological Non-Existence of Morality

Why are we tortured by our brains?

Posted Aug 23, 2010

We all rely on morality to ensure a sense of safety for ourselves and society at large. Moral frameworks rely on what is "right" and "makes sense." Some blatantly protective examples are "it is wrong to murder" or "it is wrong to steal." These statements, however, stand in contrast to statements such as "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" where the moral sensibility is obvious but the actual follow-through rate is very low indeed. Why is the follow through rate so low in certain cases and what are the implications of this?
Brain imaging studies do in fact show that morality may be built into the nature of who we are - at a biological level. The studies show that the "accountant" of the brain that weighs risks and benefits is a central part of a network of brain regions involved in an innate moral predisposition. This brain region, the "ventromedial prefrontal cortex" (vmPFC) is highly connected to brain regions on the right side of the brain in what appears to be an "innate" manner that promotes behavior that takes the needs of others into consideration [1]. We call the latter pro-social behavior [2].

While few people would argue that this innateness exists, the reason that I think that this argument falls short is that it ignores other brain systems that challenge this moral system. These other systems are very formidable indeed, and despite the innate morality we may have, these other brain regions may strongly influence the way we think and feel. Two of the greatest challenges to the moral network in the brain are the "fear" network and the "craving" network - both of which have automatic components that powerfully impact the moral brain.

The fear network comprising the amygdala as the lynchpin that connects to surrounding brain areas is so powerfully present in the human brain that it can register fears completely outside of awareness. In my book "Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear" I have described how even blind people can identify fear - so impactful is its influence that you do not have to know that you have encountered it for it to turn on your brain's fear center. If we look at infidelity, prejudice and a host of other seemingly moralistic viewpoints, we can see that this fear center disrupts the processing of the brain's "accountant" and despite our innate moral predisposition, certain unconscious fears are likely to make you act in concert with this influence of your primitive fear-brain. You may struggle to have control over this, but much to your dismay be unable to do this [3].

If for example you are afraid of losing your romantic partner or jealous of their relationships, you may in fact choose to have an affair because you seek control over this fear. In fact, men especially activate the amygdala when they are jealous [4]. Also, if you fear certain races, you may become innately prejudiced against them [5]. These responses are not without the input of social value systems in the brain and like moral reasoning, also interact with other brain regions. My argument here is that although morality is innate and processed by certain brain regions, it is relative and subject to influences by more primitive forces that at times overwhelm us.

Craving, similarly, is also strongly automatic and served by the primitive brain. And although it is subject to influences by the "thinking" brain, it is also granted a power of its own. The brain structures involved in craving are under the influence of the frontal lobe, but for many, this is only a weak connection [6-8]. Thus craving is also a formidable opponent to morality in the brain.

This has little to do with what is right or wrong for an individual or society. Being innate does not mean that something is "right." It simply means that the brain is wired to execute on a task more quickly and that this automatic response has been set down early on in life. The most profound argument that I would propose here is that we are also wired for forgiveness. A recent study showed that the brain's accountant on the left side is involved in forgiveness [9], but like the centers for morality, fear and craving, this region is also not independent of the desire to punish or anger centers of the brain [10].

The challenge in human existence then, is that our brain studies are showing us that the moral systems in the human brain live side by side with the formidable and often much more powerful systems for fear and craving and that the desire to forgive is also challenged by the desire for retribution. My point here is that these brain studies show that none of these ideas is absolute; that as human beings we are prone to a certain struggle of duality and opposites that live together in the brain, and that try as we may to restrain this, I do not believe that we can at the level of these systems. As Einstein said: "You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created" - which begs the question: if we are to solve this internal battle, what "level" can we access to do this? To see the beginnings of an answer to this, see my blog on The Huffington Post.

1. Mendez, M.F., The neurobiology of moral behavior: review and neuropsychiatric implications. CNS Spectr, 2009. 14(11): p. 608-20.
2. Moretto, G., et al., A psychophysiological investigation of moral judgment after ventromedial prefrontal damage. J Cogn Neurosci. 22(8): p. 1888-99.
3. Greene, J.D. and J.M. Paxton, Patterns of neural activity associated with honest and dishonest moral decisions. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2009. 106(30): p. 12506-11.
4. Takahashi, H., et al., Men and women show distinct brain activations during imagery of sexual and emotional infidelity. Neuroimage, 2006. 32(3): p. 1299-307.
5. Phelps, E.A., C.J. Cannistraci, and W.A. Cunningham, Intact performance on an indirect measure of race bias following amygdala damage. Neuropsychologia, 2003. 41(2): p. 203-8.
6. Park, S.Q., et al., Prefrontal cortex fails to learn from reward prediction errors in alcohol dependence. J Neurosci. 30(22): p. 7749-53.
7. Volkow, N.D., et al., Cognitive control of drug craving inhibits brain reward regions in cocaine abusers. Neuroimage. 49(3): p. 2536-43.
8. Filbey, F.M., et al., Marijuana craving in the brain. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2009. 106(31): p. 13016-21.
9. Hayashi, A., et al., Neural correlates of forgiveness for moral transgressions involving deception. Brain Res. 1332: p. 90-9.
10. Takahashi, H., et al., When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude. Science, 2009. 323(5916): p. 937-9.