Wednesday, April 25, 2007

If you remove that anchor, you can end up anywhere

Revealing new research validates the likelihood that a real-life Mr Spock might indeed sacrifice himself for his comrades. In the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock says to Captain Kirk: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the oneā€¦

Think of the many submariners with whom you served: By their organizational positions, who were the least emotional? And, which tended to be the most emotional?

Antonio Damasio at the UCLA and his colleagues recruited 30 people for a related experiment. Six of the subjects had suffered damage to a region in front of their brains known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC), which regulates emotions. Participants had this brain injury as a result of aneurisms or tumour growth in the VMPC region.

Twelve participants in the study had damage to other parts of the brain but not the VMPC. Also, 12 more subjects had no brain injury whatsoever.

This was one scenario presented to the test subjects:

Personal Moral Scenario: Submarine
You are the captain of a military submarine travelling underneath a large iceberg. An onboard explosion has caused you to lose most of your oxygen supply and has injured one of your crew who is quickly losing blood. The injured crew member is going to die from his wounds no matter what happens.

The remaining oxygen is not sufficient for the entire crew to make it to the surface. The only way to save the other crew members is to shoot dead the injured crew member so that there will be just enough oxygen for the rest of the crew to survive.

Would you kill the fatally injured crew member in order to save the lives of the remaining crew members?

"Emotions are an anchor for our moral systems. If you remove that anchor you can end up anywhere," says de Waal.

Impaired emotional processing affects moral judgements, but not in the ways we might usually expect. Read the full article here.

The study can be misinterpreted to suggest that damage to the brain region regulating emotions explains all self-sacrifice. Interesting, but some of us are not convinced that selfless individuals and heroes are brain damaged. Furthermore, the submarine scenario is nonsensical.

Journal reference: Nature (DOI: 10.1038/nature05631)



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