Monday, January 19, 2009

MRI of human social values?

I read something like this by Zahn et. al., and am fascinated at the same time I am wondering what the hell to make of it. (Here, by the way, is a disucssion of the debate raging over MRI studies of social cognition that has been started off by a paper titled "Voodoo correlations in social neuroscience".) My impression is that if you scan the MRI (magnetic resonance brain imaging) literature for all the functions that have been 'correlated with,' for example, the subgenual cingulate (in this case, guilt) or orbitofrontal-insular cortices (indignation, anger) you would find a hopelessly large list. Still, the prospect of stable neural architectures associated with different discrete social emotions is interesting. The authors suggest that social values emerge from coactivation of abstract conceptual representations within the anterior temporal lobe region (aTL, BA38/22), emotional states represented in mesolimbic and basal forebrain regions (hypothalamus, septum, VTA (ventral tegmental area), anterior insula) and emotion–action associations in OFC (orbitofrontal cortex) as well as sequential action outcomes in anterior medial PFC (prefrontal cortex) regions. They provide data...
...supporting a model in which social values draw upon stable representations of conceptual detail within the anterior temporal lobe region (aTL, BA38/22) and context-dependent representations of distinct moral sentiments within fronto-mesolimbic regions. They test a model of integration of the concepts and emotions that form social values in which social values change their emotional quality in a flexible way adapted to the context of agency. They suggest that a separation of stable context-independent representations in the aTL can be flexibly embedded within different contexts of action implementation and emotional qualities as encoded in fronto-limbic circuits to account for our ability to link social values to a wide range of interpersonal and cultural settings

The interdependency of context of actions and emotional evaluation has been a key component of the notion of values proposed by British philosophers during the 18th century. According to this stance, intuitive "moral sentiments" determine whether we perceive a behavior as constituting a virtue or vice and guide our approval or disapproval of that behavior...When we are the agent of an action conforming to our values, we may feel pride, whereas when another person is the agent, we may feel gratitude. On the negative side, when we act counter to our values, we may feel guilt and when another person acts in the same way toward us, we instead feel indignation or anger.
Here is the abstract of the paper:
Social values are composed of social concepts (e.g., "generosity") and context-dependent moral sentiments (e.g., "pride"). The neural basis of this intricate cognitive architecture has not been investigated thus far. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging while subjects imagined their own actions toward another person (self-agency) which either conformed or were counter to a social value and were associated with pride or guilt, respectively. Imagined actions of another person toward the subjects (other-agency) in accordance with or counter to a value were associated with gratitude or indignation/anger. As hypothesized, superior anterior temporal lobe (aTL) activity increased with conceptual detail in all conditions. During self-agency, activity in the anterior ventromedial prefrontal cortex correlated with pride and guilt, whereas activity in the subgenual cingulate solely correlated with guilt. In contrast, indignation/anger activated lateral orbitofrontal-insular cortices. Pride and gratitude additionally evoked mesolimbic and basal forebrain activations. Our results demonstrate that social values emerge from coactivation of stable abstract social conceptual representations in the superior aTL and context-dependent moral sentiments encoded in fronto-mesolimbic regions. This neural architecture may provide the basis of our ability to communicate about the meaning of social values across cultural contexts without limiting our flexibility to adapt their emotional interpretation.


  1. Hi,

    Happy New Year!
    Any chance of some constructive feedback on a video I put together on the above study



  2. Hey Justin,

    Great stuff, but I only survive by turning off the sound and using the start/stop button on the video.