Doctor Who and the Neuroscience of Morality Malfunctions

Can neural change impair empathy in Daleks, the Doctor, and nonfictional folks?

Posted Aug 31, 2014

Terrified over how she might answer, the Doctor asks Clara, "Am I a good man?" (Doctor Who, "Into the Dalek")

Has the Doctor misplaced one of his hearts? "Deep Breath" and "Into the Dalek" - Peter Capaldi's first two full episodes starring in the BBC's 50-year-old science fiction TV series Doctor Who - reveal a Doctor whose empathy may be impaired, a man whose morality may have malfunctioned.

The fictional canon of Doctor Who accounts for the occasional recasting of the lead actor by having the character undergo a process of regeneration (explained a bit in a previous post, "Doctor Who: Regeneration and a Dilemma of Doctor Identities"), which rebuilds a Time Lord character's entire body, cell by cell, and even alters personality in the process. In the newest episodes since his latest regeneration, the so-called Twelfth Doctor has been running short on empathy in more ways than one. He needs empathy both from and for others.

Showing Empathy

"Yeah, my carer. She cares so I don't have to."
- the Doctor introducing Clara in "Into the Dalek."

In the season premiere episode "Deep Breath," the Doctor seemingly abandons his traveling companion Clara, leaving his friend in a predicament that has her "bloody terrified" and in tears. Even though he reappears at the perfect time to prove he has her back and has not really deserted her, he has nevertheless placed her in that terrifying position in order to serve the practical purpose of gathering intel for the mission at hand. In the following episode, "Into the Dalek," he displays apparent indifference to soldier Journey Blue's grief for her brother and again to her team's feelings over another soldier's death. Each time, the Doctor stays focused on the task at hand and criticizes others for dwelling on those deaths instead of more practical concerns. Clara expresses her fury over his current priorities: "People are dyin' here, and there's a little bit of you that's pleased. The Daleks are evil, after all; everything makes sense; the Doctor is right!"

"Into the Dalek" explores both sides of the coin: a hero not fully in touch with his good side and a monster disconnected from its own evil. A Dalek is a small creature genetically engineered to hate life, best known for its robotic housing that looks like a giant pepper shaker sporting a toilet plunger for one arm and a death-ray-firing kitchen whisk for the other. The Dalek shell's computer monitors the creature’s memories and feelings in order to suppress any that might run contrary to the traditional Dalek intent to "exterminate!" The Doctor discovers a damaged Dalek with new priorities. It has decided that resistance to life itself is futile. "A Dalek so damaged it's turned good," says the Doctor. "Morality has malfunctioned. How do I resist?" As it turns out, though, the damaged Dalek has not become less murderous. It simply means to destroy Daleks instead of killing everybody else.

Can neural changes really alter someone's morality? Yes, they can, indeed.

Empathy takes three main formscognitive empathy, knowing what others are feeling; emotional empathy, tuning into the feelings of others by reflecting their feelings in one's own emotions; and compassionate empathy, feeling one's own concern and consideration for the distress and feelings of others. Temporary neural states and lasting neural changes can influence them all.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), by using a magnetic field from outside the cranium to manipulate the brain that dwells inside, can stimulate or inhibit neural activity depending on how it is applied as a moving magnetic field creates electric current. Magnetic stimulation may enhance empathy or impede it depending on how and where it gets applied in the brain (Carr, Iacoboni, Dubeau, Mazziotta, & Lenzi, 2002; Geddes, 2011; Hetu, Taschereau-Dumouchel, & Jackson, 2011), although whether this could become more than a fleeting, temporary effect remains open to future exploration. Empathic processing in morality is not simply an emotional mimicking of others' feelings; it is also about understanding others. A research team led by Rebecca Saxe (2009) found that TMS disrupted temporoparietal functioning, interfering with participants' ability to form moral judgments which required an understanding of other people's intentions. Magnetic pulses altered moral judgments temporarily. 

Long-term changes to the brain can produce long-term changes in empathy and related moral concerns. Some people with head injuries look like psychopaths in some ways. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) can result in difficulties processing emotions. Such victims' impaired ability to recognize and understand other people's emotions makes them seem insensitive, egocentric, and self-centered, possibly angry as well. Inflexibility, irritability, impulsivity, diminished self-control, and even criminal actions may emerge. Previously caring people may now show indifference or lack of concern for others. These difficulties might improve with time, though, as the brain injury falls deeper into the past.  

Changing the Doctor's brain can make it difficult for him to understand not only others but himself as well. Alexithymia (inability to identify and express one's own emotions) also appears to be more common in TBI victims. Early in "Into the Dalek," the Doctor, who admits to feeling terrified about what the answer to this question will be, asks Clara, "Am I a good man?" After she says she does not know, he says, "Neither do I." At end of the "Into the Dalek," though, Clara fleshes this out: "You asked me if you were a good man, and the answer is 'I don't know,' but I think you try to be and I think that's probably the point." 

Needing Empathy 

Complicating matters as the Doctor struggles to cope with his own internal changes is the fact that others may now respond differently to him. Real people who have suffered brain injuries, dementia, schizophrenia, paralysis, amputation, facial reconstruction, and other major alterations whether internally or externally can find it even harder to cope when other people change how they treat them. People can become impatient or even angry when you do not look or act the same as before, and some might express these frustrations as if the victim could be badgered back into being the way they were before. 

The newly regenerated Doctor's face shows his hope as he wishes that Clara will continue to travel with him through time and space, and then his disappointment when she says, "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I don't think I know who you are, anymore."

In the case of the time traveler, his own past self (the Eleventh Doctor, played again by former Doctor Who star Matt Smith) can call Clara on the phone and does so, asking her to stick with the Twelfth Doctor as he adjusts and learns to cope with his changes. "I think you might be scared," says the Eleventh, "and however scared you are, Clara, the man you are with right now - the man I hope you are with - believe me, he is more scared than anything you can imagine right now."

"Will you help me?" the Twelfth Doctor asks. When Clara still hesitates, he tries to get her to empathize with him, to consider his point of view: "You can't see me, can't you? You-you look at me and you can't see me. You have any idea what that's like? I'm not on the phone. I'm right here, standing in front of you. Please just...just see me."

Developing empathy for others can be difficult without receiving it from others.

Clara sees him as the Doctor at last, although he thinks he's no longer the hugging type.

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Playing hide-and-seek with a Dalek at Dallas Comic Con. Photo by Alex Langley.