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Brain's 'Moral Outrage' Center Pinpointed

People with damage to a neural center for emotions don't get angry at would-be criminals, study finds

WEDNESDAY, March 24 (HealthDay News) -- Your ability to judge wrongdoing and get angry at the perpetrator seems to be based in a part of the brain that regulates emotions, neuroscientists say.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology report that people who suffer from damage in this area of the brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, don't react appropriately when they consider hypothetical situations in which one person unsuccessfully tries to kill another person. The researchers say people with the brain damage don't consider the perpetrator to be morally responsible for the actions.

"Were slowly chipping away at the structure of morality," said Liane Young, a postdoctoral associate in MITs Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and lead author of a new study, in a statement. "We're not the first to show that emotions matter for morality, but this is a more precise look at how emotions matter."

The researchers came to their conclusions after studying nine patients with damage to the brain region, which is located behind the eyes and is about the size of a plum.

The subjects were asked to react to hypothetical scenarios.

"They can process what people are thinking and their intentions, but they just don't respond emotionally to that information," Young said. "They can read about a murder attempt and judge it as morally permissible because no harm was done."

The findings are published in the March 25 issue of the journal Neuron.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more on how the brain works.

-- Randy Dotinga

SOURCE: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, news release, March 24, 2010

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