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Dilemmas, Decisions, and Brain Function.

Moral Dilemmas and Brain Function

Participants needed to take part in a decision making and brain scanning study.

You will be asked to answer written problems, whilst seated in front of a computer screen and having your brain function and emotional arousal monitored. You will also be asked to answer a short personality questionnaire. This will take approximately 1 hour. Participants must be comfortable with English language and be free from known reading / language problems in order to participate.

Contact Glen Carrigan to book a laboratory slot: When emailing, please indicate which times would be most convenient for you between the dates of the 18th and 27th of August if you have a preference.

The laboratory is located in Darwin Building at The University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK. We can arrange to meet you at the building or elsewhere on campus if needed, please make us aware of any access issues you may have ahead of time.

Ethical Approval: PSYSOC 159_2nd Phase

Campus Map


Moral, religious, psychopathic, or just human?

Glen Carrigan looks at the science of morality

Original article at British Humanist Association 07.07.2014

Science, increasingly, is answering questions which before only philosophers could attempt

Why doesn’t Microsoft Word recognise the word ‘Neuropsychology?’ Maybe because it’s a rather new field, although people have been musing on the workings of the physical brain for a very long time indeed – don’t worry though, we’re not trepanning people anymore!

My interest is the moral brain, how humans – and other animals to some degree – draw the distinction between right and wrong to organise society. Some argue that moral standards are axiomatic and that moral compasses come from god. There actually seems to be some truth to this, in that some absolutist standards like Thou Shalt Not Kill or the Golden Rule seem to be very intuitive – as is the notion that you’re somehow a social pariah if you play World of Warcraft. A paper by Baumard and Boyer called “Explaining Moral Religions” shows just how universal this is.

Is the Golden Rule any good though? Maybe, but you’re making your own narrow individual experience the basis for how you treat others. Wouldn’t it be better to ask them how they’d like to be treated? This should indeed be the case for issues such as assisted dying, where holding to Thou Shalt Not Kill diminishes the dignity and autonomy of a feeling, reflecting being. To hold dogmatic moral views also only works if you believe in god and that at least in some religions, you’re good to escape punishment in the hereafter, rather than for the sake of the here and now.

Far from being divine in origin, there seems to be a wealth of evidence showing us that being an individual yet social animal, with a big (relative to body size) and healthy brain, necessitates certain behaviours for us to flourish in a group. This then, gives rise to our need to discuss and reflect upon what it means to be a moral agent. You can see similar intuitive behavioural patterns to our own in other animals that operate in social groups. A wonderful example is the reciprocal behaviour of vampire bats, who seem to understand that a good deed (donating a regurgitated blood meal – stomach churning I know) deserves repayment. There is much converging evidence in evolutionary psychology that points to animals being the origin of their own ‘moral’ codes. But there are driving forces behind being a good egg other than reciprocity.

Throughout history philosophers have struggled with what constitutes the virtuous act. We notice that certain behaviours are predictable and wrong such as rape and rightly condemn people for it. We also need to accept that we make choices – if we have free will – and should be responsible for them. The fact that certain prohibitions are intuitive might suggest an in-built moral acquisition and refinement device (MARD) which is nurtured by social experience, emotion and reflection, rather than an omnipotent law giver. Perhaps we are actually responsible for the holy books that seek to have us tow the moral line – although we were managing to beforehand – in any event we seem to be the only species we know of that spends a great deal of time writing books telling ourselves to be good, that we’re special, and that we should be humble about it!

Neuropsychology can perhaps tell us a bit about this MARD and how we think, rather than what we should think here: We establish the social norms after all and what acts constitute deviance. The archetypal Psychopath seems to be deviant to many of us and this is why I study them. The fact is that we all have psychopathic traits along a spectrum; it’s just that some people have more pronounced, what the majority consider to be, morally deviant tendencies. Neuropsychology shows us that Psychopaths seem to have diminished empathic concern, as well as, fail to notice the importance of intention in a harmful act. Since it’s us that establish that intention to cause harm is worse than an accident (the difference between murder and manslaughter) we view psychopaths as morally deviant in society – perhaps their MARD is broken?

People often panic here and think that if we can predict someone will think and perhaps behave murderously then the notion of choice in society falls apart. It might, if you want Neuroscience to strip us of our humanity. In my view, although we could see why such people might be like this, that doesn’t mean they walk away scot free. What matters is that we discuss our options reflectively and organise society around us as moral beings that makes choices, with a sense of responsibility, and who can be punished for transgressions, rather than allowing my brain made me do it as an alibi in all cases where mental instability is an issue. It’s also worth pointing out that most psychopaths actually don’t run around murdering people like Heath Ledger in Batman!

Memories in the Making; Neuroscientists Observe Memory Formation

mouse brainFor the first time in history, neuroscientists are observing memory formation and transmission around the brain of a mammal. Developing on advances in the field of RNA research, this astounding discovery really does reveal how this particular function of the brain might work.

Memory is a complex cognitive process comprising many different facets. Before we have a memory (that which we can reconstruct) it has to be encoded in the brain in some way. This is an ever-changing process that is not entirely understood but what we do know is that an initial phase of encoding must take place; this can involve visual, auditory, olfactory perception and more, with a system of storage following its receipt.

This need to store the memory leads to the alteration of molecular structures in the brain including synapses – think of them as radio antennas, one transmitting a particular signal that needs to hop across a gap to another which is designed to receive it; both synapses and radio signal can be strengthened and thus make the job of bridging the gap easier. Memories on a cellular level are seen to be encoded and stable when long-lasting synaptic connections occur between neurons that are in contact with each other. But how do we see this work? Neurons are minute, despite there being 86 billion of them – a figure arrived at by Dr. Suzana Herculano Houzel of the famous ‘brain soup’ study – they are difficult to see and their processes even more troublesome to appraise.

Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Yeshiva University developed a mouse model within which they were able to fluorescently tag molecules of RNA (mRNA) that code for beta-actin (β-actin) proteins. This is a process that we have used before to tag particular types of neurons in the brain; you might also remember a similar technique being used to produce a fluorescent pig! The appeal of this technique is in the fact that one can tag beta-actin proteins without disrupting the normal cellular processes within them. Bet-actin proteins are found thought living organisms with large concentrations in the brain.

One study describes a process where Dr. Park stimulated neurons in the hippocampus (memory associated) of the mouse, producing glowing beta-actin mRNA molecules which they were able to observe travel within the dendrites of the neuron. A second study by graduate student Adina Buxbaum observed that the way in which beta-actin mRNA is synthesised and controlled by neurons may be unique, leading to a process where it is packaged making it inaccessible for making protein and subsequently unpackaged making it available of beta-protein synthesis.

Dr. Singer in whose laboratory this was discovered remarks: “This observation that neurons selectively activate protein synthesis and then shut it off fits perfectly with how we think memories are made.” This would allow for selective stimulation of beta-actin protein where and when needed in order to strengthen synapses and in turn, memories. I only wish my synapses were sufficiently strengthened when taking Japanese language classes: transmission of language through auditory and written media and rehearsal of what is heard leading to better retention and reproducibility, all through the effective functioning of our neural circuitry.

To find out more about the molecular basis of memory please click the links cited within text for academic research articles.
Video courtesy of Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Executive functioning and exercise addiction in males and females with symptoms of muscle dysmorphia

Advertisement of the charities and institues we are affiliated with

Please participate in our study.

Research into the subject of Muscle Dysmorphia is greatly lacking and if you’re a regular reader of this blog you will notice I care greatly about things of this nature. This research is a bonafide psychological study at The University of Central Lahcashire. The survey will take around 22 minutes and will add to an area of research at the forefront of modern socio/psychological research and governmental concern with regards to the health of many people in our societies.

The current study will assess group differences in executive functioning and exercise addiction in males and females, with and without symptoms of muscle dysmorphia (MD).  Variables known to influence both executive functioning and the development of MD will be controlled for (age, Body Mass Index, sexual orientation, depression, certain medications and substances (e.g., anti-depressants), dieting and fluid intelligence.

This study has been ethically approved by The Psychology department of  The University of Central Lancashire.

Contacts: Glen Andrew Carrigan(BPS member, REPS, SEED)
or Dr Noreen Caswell, (BSc., MSc., PhD., CPsychol, FHEA, HPC),

Click here to participate: Executive functioning and exercise addiction in males and females with symptoms of muscle dysmorphia

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