Being able to detect if someone is about to physically harm us or those around us can be critical for survival, and our brains can make this assessment in tenths of a second. But what happens in the brain while we make these assessments, and how does it occur so fast?
If we see someone being harmed, our moral evaluation of the incident is near instant and is based on whether the harm caused was intentional, and if so how serious the intended harm was. An example of this would be if you witness a man being deliberately pushed in front of a train as it enters the station. Your moral appraisal of the perpetrator would not be altered by whether the victim was rescued before the train struck. You would recognize the perpetrator’s intent to severely harm their victim, whether successful or not, and blame them accordingly.
The study described in the video above used intracranial recordings to look inside participants’ brains to see how they react when confronted with examples of intentional harm, unintentional harm, and neutral actions. The results show that part of the brain called the amygdala displays early activity when faced with intentional harm. The amygdala was the only part of the brain able to recognize critical conditions that distinguished intentional from unintentional harm.
In short, the amygdala and its frontotemporal networks are responsible for the early recognition of the intention to harm and the moral evaluation of harmful actions.
Featured image – Taken from the ‘Early detection of intentional harm in the human amygdala’ video. Used with permission.