The Moral Brain

Scientists are actively working on solving the mystery of what is different about the brains of people who have traits of sociopathy/psychopathy. Notice that I say “traits” because virtually none of the studies only include subjects who score above 30 on the PCL-R. These studies then by definition are about sociopathic traits and not psychopathy (see my post from last week). When I first realized that I had to understand sociopathic traits in order to properly raise my at-risk son, I studied the traits and organized them according to what I understood about human motivation and the organization of the brain. In my opinion, sociopathic traits form three categories, I call The Inner Triangle. The Inner Triangle consists of Ability to Love, Impulse Control and Moral Reasoning. To read more about the Inner Triangle visit The Inner Triangle.

Moral Reasoning is more than just logical thoughts about moral questions. Moral Reasoning has an emotional component that some how blends with the thinking component to produce moral judgments. Scientists studying the brain basis of Moral Reasoning have to figure out how thoughts and emotions can come together. This is the classic “hard problem” of psychology because the thinking and feeling parts of the brain are separate yet somehow work together in a coordinated way to produce moral consciousness and an experience of Self. (To see a general discussion of the “hard problem” visit

One of the leading researchers into the “hard problem” in the United States is Dr. Jordan Grafman at the National Institutes of Health. We are lucky because two researchers from Brazil Jorge Moll and , Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, recently collaborated with Dr. Grafman’s group to work on the “hard problem” with respect to Moral Reasoning. Together, they developed a theory of Moral Reasoning they call the Event-Feature-Emotion Complex Framework (EFEC). The theory is explained in their paper, The Neural Basis Of Human Moral Cognition (Nature Reviews of Neuroscience, 2005).

Briefly, the theory discusses how perceptions of an event, motivation and learned rules become one in our mind. This happens through a process called “binding.” During binding areas of the brain become activated together. The neurons in these areas show a synchronous electrical rhythm during binding. One idea is that perhaps this binding is disordered in people with sociopathic traits.

When Dr. Jorge Moll returned to Brazil he went to work applying the EFEC theory to psychopathy. In a recent paper, Psychopathy as a disorder of the moral brain: Fronto-temporo-limbic grey matter reductions demonstrated by voxel-based morphometry, he reports his findings of diminished grey matter in the brains of 15 people referred to him for evaluation of sociopathic traits. Only a couple of these subjects were actually “psychopaths.” Diminished grey matter was found these subjects in all the regions which subserve moral cognition in the EFEC framework. There was a correlation between the number of sociopathic traits and the degree of reduced grey matter. The only pitfall to the study was that half of the subjects also had substance use disorders in addition to sociopathic traits.

The problems with Ability to Love and Impulse Control that are central to sociopathy have received much attention. The Moral Reasoning deficits which are just as important, are not discussed as much so I was glad to see this paper. On the other hand I want to tell you what this paper does not indicate.

The finding of diminished grey matter in the brain moral reasoning network is not proof of cause and effect. It is also not proof that the moral reasoning problems seen in sociopaths are permanent. Disuse of a system in the brain causes shrinking of that system. The brain shrinking can occur fairly rapidly in areas that are not used. Similarly when neurons fire they release growth factors that serve to strengthen connections and grow more connections. This change in brain function with use is called plasticity.

I did a search of “grey matter” AND “plasticity” in Pubmed the scientific data base of The National Library of Medicine. I found countless examples of plasticity in the amount of grey matter measured by MRI. Use of the brain leads to increases in grey matter! Disuse, in conditions like depression leads to loss of grey matter. So we don’t know if the grey matter changes in sociopaths are due to disuse of the moral brain. Anyone who has lived with a sociopath knows they do not use their moral brains much.

Although I am realistic about the amount of change and growth “sociopaths” as a group show-very little. I don’t think it does humanity much good to be completely hopeless about a group of people who may comprise 10-15 percent of our young and middle aged adults. If we want to say Dr. Hare’s psychopaths are hopeless then perhaps that is OK because these are 1% of our population. BUT many, many people have significant sociopathic traits. We have to thoroughly explore how we can treat sociopathy.

When writing Driven to Do Evil, I contemplated the problems of evil in our world. It seems that people who do evil fall into two separate categories: 1)Those who have a developmental lack of moral emotions and 2) those who have empathy/guilt. Yes people who have guilt and empathy do evil! Probably most of the evil in our world is done by people who have the capacity for guilt and empathy. These people do evil because they are able to suppress their guilt and empathy while doing their evil deeds. This suppression likely leads to shrinkage of the moral brain if it is repeated.

I ask you all, which is worse, evil done by a person who suppresses his/her own guilt and empathy to harm another, or evil done by a person who has never in his/her adult life experienced guilt or empathy? Isn’t it worse when we suppress our moral emotions in the service of greed and power. Who is to say that this life pattern of suppression is not the cause of sociopathy in most? Just a question”¦

Important addendum: A friend just sent me this link: Compassion-something you can learn through meditation. The areas of the brain mentioned in this article are those discussed by researchers in the Moral Brain, namely the Insula. This research addresses the question of plasticity in the Moral Brain. Link to original Scientific Article

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12 Comments on "The Moral Brain"

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BTW, welcome, James.

YOu are right, the lack of awareness (right word?) of the cause and effect reasoning does seem to be lacking and to me very confusing that though they can be extremely bright, like my son (scored in 99th percentile) never the less the things he did that got him caught were so elementary that a 5 year old could have done a better “cover up” to have not gotten caught.

My son, and other psychopaths I have known, don’t seem to learn a thing from sanctions, even long periods of time in prison. In Dr. Anna Salter’s book on “Predators” (psychopaths and other sexual predators) she says that their fantasy life seems to keep on changing, maturing, etc. while they are in prison such that she thinks that this fantasy of how things will be when they get out continues to influence them and that the only benefit to putting them in prison is that they are deprived of a civilian victim pool.

She had one chapter on how inmates seduce staff for sex and other illegal activities as a “game” that is actually more fun than the sex or the items and contraband that they obtain. I agree with her that prison is actually only an “advanced degree course” at tax payer expense in depravity and amoral behavior. From what I have observed in my P-son over the years, the things he has told me, etc. (he even seduced a female major–and I met her—it was very obvious that there were “sexual sparks flying” between them. I find it incomprehensible that a young, successful, married woman would risk going to prison to have sex with an inmate, but apparently this is a fairly COMMON thing in prisons in general. In interviews with prisoners, Dr. Salter had them explain exactly how they acheived this—then they started trying to same tactics on her, even after they had told her how they did it. DUH!?!

Interesting book on the thinking and behaviors of psychopaths and others. Gave me a great deal of insight I think. Mentioned some tings that I had noticed about my son’s behavior but really couldn’t put any significance to before reading the book.

The thing about CRAZY is he does’nt think there is anything wrong with him. He would never get treatment or take medication for his ability to manipulate the world. He loves that he has this “gift” and why would he need to be treated? Anyone who says he needs treatment is a “hater” they are just jealous. Why would he want to feel badly for things that he does when he does’nt have to now. One time CRAZY told me that he could kill someone and it would’nt bother him one bit. I was thinking for protection purposes and stated sure for self defense. He said,”no… I could kill anyone.” Honestly, at the time I thought…”wow, maybe he should have been in the military.” I never thought of it again until CRAZY put his gun to MY head. One day I told him as I stood in front of him that I could smell his soul rotting and he laughed and said “I don’t have one!” He is well aware of who he is and likes it. He gets insulted in front of other people if he is called out on it not because he cares but because other people will think its bad and he can’t continue to manipulate them if they don’t like him. He would never get treatment for having a forked tongue if the the tongue is what pays his bills,gets him all the ladies, and gives him the ability to manipulate everyone…..

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