Our brains are amoral. They need cultural context to give them a moral compass.

Real and Imaginary

It’s a staple of self-help advice and sports and performance psychology that our brains don’t know the difference between real and imagined, therefore we can trick them into getting us what we want. There’s good science to back this up, although recent research suggests that the brain actually does know the difference — that it has specific neurons for that purpose. Science Daily. Plus, although both real and imaginary run over the same neural pathway, they move in opposite directions:  input from the outside world runs bottom up — from lower level sensory to higher level cognitive processing — while imagined input runs top down. Psychology Today, Knowledge Nuts.

Getting Into Our Bodies

Not that Harold Hill’s “think system” is enough — we still need to practice and rehearse effectively. We need to get our bodies involved. We’re out there in the “real world” taking in sensory input, interacting with people, things, and experiences, meanwhile we’re imagining things, throwing in doses of speculation and making things up. Our brains and bodies need to work together to ground this swirl of information. This article[1] explains how they do that:

“When considering the senses, we tend to think of sight and sound, taste, touch and smell. However, these are classified as exteroceptive senses, that is, they tell us something about the outside world. In contrast, interoception is a sense that informs us about our internal bodily sensations, such as the pounding of our heart, the flutter of butterflies in our stomach or feelings of hunger.

“The brain represents, integrates and prioritises interoceptive information from the internal body. These are communicated through a set of distinct neural and humoural (i.e., blood-borne) pathways. This sensing of internal states of the body is part of the interplay between body and brain: it maintains homeostasis, the physiological stability necessary for survival; it provides key motivational drivers such as hunger and thirst; it explicitly represents bodily sensations, such as bladder distension. But that is not all, and herein lies the beauty of interoception, as our feelings, thoughts and perceptions are also influenced by the dynamic interaction between body and brain.”

University of Sussex cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth lays all this out in his TED2017 talk “Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality.”

TED Hallucinating reality

“When we agree about our hallucinations,” he says, “we call that reality.” Those agreements blend external (outside world) and internal (imagined) input into shared belief about what the real world is, and how it works. They also add another key cultural component:  a sense of right and wrong.

Why We Need a Moral Compass, and Where We Get It

Humans need community to survive. Community, in turn, needs a shared behavioral code. Our brains are flexible and amoral on issues of right and wrong — they take their cues from cultural context. Cultural moral coding is therefore evolutionary — motivated by the survival instinct.[2] All of that goes a long way toward explaining why activities honored by one group are despicable to another, and why, when confronted with those differences, each group’s first instinct is to point fingers.

This article reviews three prominent books[3] supporting culturally based morality, and concludes as follows:

“…one must come to the conclusion that inside human beings, as Gazzaniga says, ‘there is a moral compass.’ But ‘we have to be smart enough to figure out how it works.’ Across the realm of human experience—personal, collective, historical, and now neuroscientific—it is abundantly clear that we have the capacity to consciously consider consequences and choose our actions… The mind is a physio-spiritual mechanism built for choice, but it must be given direction. We may be endowed with a moral compass, but it does not arrive with prewired direction. Moral calibration is required.”

The article’s source is “the Church of God, an international community,” which according to its website is a “a nondenominational organization based in Pasadena, California [which] traces its antecedents to Sabbatarian communities in 17th-century Europe, and before that to the first-century apostolic Church at Jerusalem.” Its tool of choice for the brain’s “moral calibration” is the Bible:

“The Bible, too, is unequivocal in the need for [moral calibration] (see, for example, Proverbs 3:31 and Job 34:2–4), adding that there is a spiritual factor responsible for imparting this ability to the human mind (Job 32:8–9)… The Bible serves as the lodestone that sets our compass’s orientation and helps us establish our moral bearings.”

But of course the Church of God didn’t write the article — an individual or collaboration of individuals wrote it, in furtherance of the Church’s culture and institutional belief system. It’s not surprising that the Bible was its cultural choice for moral calibration. Another culture might have chosen a different tool — Mein Kampf, for instance, or the ISIS Manifesto.

The article closes with reservations about the three authors’ neuro-cultural approach to morality:

“As secularists, of course, these authors cannot be expected to pursue [the Bible] in their search for the source of moral standards, especially when, as Gazzaniga notes, so much of what constitutes religious faith is founded on superstition rather than on truth. And so, as researchers improve drug cocktails to ultimately manipulate and control the brain (as Tancredi believes they will), and as society haltingly accepts science as arbiter of good and evil (as Gazzaniga believes it must), it is not too farfetched to imagine that the moral grammar Hauser describes can be refashioned as well. In fact, if history provides any clue, it seems a done deal. The only question that remains is whether our ongoing recalibrations will be for the better or for the worse.”

Yes — whether “for the better or for the worse” remains to be seen…. But according to whose cultural point of view?

[1]How The Body And Mind Talk To One Another To Understand The World,” Aeon Magazine (Feb. 15, 2019).

[2] Here’s a nice primer on this concept. And here’s another, maybe more grownup version.

[3] Hardwired Behavior:  What Neuroscience Reveals About Morality, by Laurence Tancredi, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, a psychiatrist in private practice, and a lawyer who consults on criminal cases involving psychiatric issues. The Ethical Brain:  The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas, by Michael S. Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology and Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Moral Minds:  How Nature Designed Our Moral Minds, by Marc D. Hauser, Professor of Psychology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, where he is director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory and co-director of the Mind, Brain and Behavior Program.