Researchers at MIT have recently discovered more details about the “moral center” of the brain. They’ve identified the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VmPC)–the same part of the brain that deals with emotions–as the morality area of the brain.

Individuals who have damage to this part of their brain are more likely to have difficulty engaging in moral reasoning. So, when they are presented with imaginary situations in which one person intentionally attempts to kill another person, individuals with damage to this area of the brain do not find the attempted murderer to be at fault.

The results from this study focus only on attempted murder situations, and not on hypothetical situations in which someone was actually murdered. This is important because damage to the VmPC affects the understanding of the outcome–if the victim was not hurt, attempted murder is, theoretically, okay. The participants did not necessarily justify actual violence.

Therefore, the participants with damage to the VmPC struggled with the abstract nature of “what if?” They did not react emotionally to hypothetical situations in which someone was intentionally trying to harm someone.

While this area of the brain is different from the area discussed in my earlier posts about psychopathy, other studies (with children and adults) have suggested that the VmPC may also play a role in psychopathy. This research suggests that the VmPC plays a large part in moral based decision-making, and that damage to this area of the brain can contribute to the poor decision-making processes that are seen among psychopathic individuals.

However, since the VmPC also plays a part in emotional responses, I wonder if damage to that area is also contributing the decreased empathy seen in psychopathic individuals. And, of course the chicken or the egg question: are the impairments a result of the psychopathy or is the psychopathy a result of the impairments? We know that brain chemistry and structure can change as a result of environmental factors, so it would be interesting to know if that’s the case with psychopathic behavior and brain abnormalities.

While the cause of psychopathology is always interesting, we know from experience with several other disorders (i.e. schizophrenia) that determining the cause the illness is not always easy, and not necessarily required for treatment. There’s certainly a lot more research to be done in the area of psychopathy, hopefully leading to more effective treatment, and eventually, as Dr. Grohol suggests here, to preventative measures.