Good Human Beings and the Right Temporoparietal Junction

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

When we watch a short video like Rebecca Saxe's TEDTalk we may be left confused. What does this mean for us in terms of morality?

In the April 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the article by Rebeccas Saxe and her co-authors make the context of their research around the RTPJ more clear: "According to a basic tenet of criminal law, 'the act does not make the person guilty unless the mind is also guilty.'" We can see why it would be good for a juror to have a well-developed RTPJ. We need to see the intention of the accused.

But is a well-developed RTPJ sufficient to create a moral or exemplary human being?

Let's consider who might represent our ideal moral human being. Who are the noblest people you know of? When I ask people this question similar names occur again and again. People like Nelson Mandela, the Buddha, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Abraham Lincoln, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and other spiritual leaders, visionary leaders and political peace activists. I then ask what do you admire about these people? Typical replies include that they are: wise, compassionate, courageous, authentic, visionary, forgiving and humble.

I suggest we hold those characteristics as the crucial context -- the "true north" -- as we examine the innovations and discoveries of neuroscience. As a society we hopefully care deeply about how we can get a little closer to that level of goodness. We can hope that science can help us chart a path in this direction, or at least point out the roadblocks.

Most of us would agree that one strong example of a "not-good" person is the psychopath. Psychopathy is "a psychological condition in which the individual shows a profound lack of empathy for the feelings of others, a willingness to engage in immoral and antisocial behavior for short-term gains, and extreme egocentricity." [1] This "profound lack of empathy" means he only cares about what he wants and feels no guilt about manipulating or using aggression to get it. These folks scare us. And they teach us something important about the path to goodness: it must include empathy.

Empathy is frequently discussed as involving at least two types: cognitive empathy and emotional (or affective) empathy. Cognitive empathy involves thinking things through to see from the other person's point of view. It is sometimes called Theory of Mind. If we predict well we can accurately guess what the other person will do, assume or feel. In the pirates with the cheese sandwiches the older children could think from the point of view of the first pirate and see why he would assume that the sandwich on top of the chest was his sandwich. This is a useful skill. It enhances moral judgment because we can see that the first pirate made a reasonable assumption and had no evil intent. But cognitive empathy is only part of being a good human being. In fact, some psychopaths have good cognitive empathy.[2] It may help them accurately predict how others will react to their manipulations.

Emotional empathy is a much more visceral experience. It includes limbic system resonance where the emotions you are feeling trigger parallel physiological and emotional reactions in me.[3] I am "feeling with" you. Emotional empathy may create the "brake" on our tendency to act from self-interest in aggressive ways. If my aggression is going to hurt you, and your pain is felt in my body, I am likely to pause and perhaps stop or lessen my aggression.[4]

I would suggest that we need both cognitive empathy (requiring a well-developed RTPJ) and emotional empathy as part of being "non-psychopaths." But does that make us good people? Not quite. Something more is needed.

What sets a truly noble person apart? What makes a Gandhi, Dalai Lama, or Mother Teresa different? There is a decision made by these people to hold themselves to a higher standard. They make a decision to live up to noble values -- to live from their highest nature. In what part of the brain does this ability reside? To my knowledge no one has fully answered this yet. I suspect we will find that the executive decision-making center of the brain, residing in the prefrontal cortex, is involved. I believe our path to nobility will call upon the emotional and logical components of the brain. There will be also a piece of right brain visioning required. I believe there will be some developmental neural "weight-lifting" and whole-brain integration skills. We will have to conceptualize what nobility looks like and then integrate our whole brain to align with that goal. We will then have to make daily choices and take actions so we can live toward that ideal. All this, if true, will mean that the RTPJ will be just one piece in our nobility-machinery.

[1] Almost a Psychopath by Ronald Schouten, MD, JD and James Silver, JD, p.18 2012 Harvard University

[2] In addition to the hyperlink you might want to look at this article by R. James R. Baird, National Institute of Mental Health

[3] For more on this I recommend A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, MD, Fari Amini, MD and Richard Lannon, MD, Random House, 2000.

[4] For more on this I recommend The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen, Basic Books, 2012

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