In a nod to evidence against psi, different sections of the brain need oxygen when deciding between rules-based moral decisions and cost-benefit moral decisions.
Those values that people refused to sell out were considered to be sacred. The participants then went back to the brain scans. It turned out that the values later shown to be sacred were the ones that activated two particular brain regions: the left temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. The TPJ is the point where the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain meet on the side of the head, while the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is on the underside of the frontal lobe. Both of these areas are associated with rule retrieval and beliefs about right and wrong.
“When people engage sacred values in their thought processes, they are by and large using rule-based systems in their heads,” Berns said. “They’re not using cost-benefit calculations.”
This makes sense, given how inefficient it would be to weigh the pros and cons of every moral decision, he said.
Think of blood flow to certain parts of the brain as being the electrical system in your house. In order to use the microwave in the kitchen, power gets diverted to the area down there in order to use the microwave. Then, if you turn on the space heater in your bedroom upstairs, that’s where electricity gets sent to to allow the space heater to run.
Almost no one considered a preference for coffee over tea to be sacred; likewise, pretty much everyone held that sexually assaulting a child is horribly wrong. But there are plenty of values that fall into gray areas. Some people held their belief in God or the belief that abortion is wrong as sacred values. Others held the opposite viewpoints as just as sacred, or just didn’t feel that strongly either way.
Interestingly, the people who tended to hold their sacred values most strongly, those with the biggest brain response differences between sacred- and non-sacred processing, also tended to be those who participated in the most group activities, Berns said. The groups could be anything from religious organizations to sports teams to professional societies, he said. The researchers are now continuing studies to find out how group conformity might play a role in sacred values.