What neuroscience can tell us about morality

Last night, Dana Alliance member Patricia Churchland, UC San Diego, spoke to a standing room only audience about morality and the brain as part of the James Arthur lecture series, hosted by the American Museum of Natural History.

A pioneer of neurophilosphy, Churchland’s research combines neurobiology and philosophy to address questions such as where values, social behavior, and morality come from. In her talk, she guided her captivated audience through the evolutionary and biological factors that she believes has led to the formation of societal values.

Churchland attributed values in the deepest sense to the brainstem and limbic system, which are the emotional and motivation systems for homeostasis, survival, and well-being. But the majority of her lecture focused on oxytocin and vasopressin, neuropeptides linked to social behaviors, which are believed to play a critical role in the bonding between mammals.

According to Churchland, high levels of oxytocin in the brain decrease fear, increase trust, decrease arousal, and decrease stress. These feelings lead to attachment and trust, which set the stage for cooperation.

To illustrate her point, she referenced work done by Sue Carter on the montane and prairie voles. While similar in most respects, the montane vole is a promiscuous rodent, while the prairie vole mates for life and practices joint parenting. Compared with their cousins, prairie voles' brains have a high density of oxytocin and vasopressin in areas related to the reward system, noted Churchland.

As a population grows, benefits come from expanding trust relationships, said Churchland. In the human population, institutions that enforce trust-connections have emerged, such as laws and religion. “Society is largely about values,” she said, although people must be cognizant that different cultures can hold different value systems.

While most of her lecture stemmed from a biological base, Churchland warned the audience not to rush to attribute actions to innate nature. She explained that behavior can be changed a lot, depending on what else is going on. To emphasize her point, she ended her lecture with a painfully cute slide of an orangutan and a dog who became unlikely friends in a sanctuary. Although solitary by nature, this orangutan bonded with the dog and the two are now inseparable.

Dr. Churchland will be speaking on the same topic tonight at Columbia University.

–Ann Whitman

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