The neural correlates of moral sensitivity: a functional magnetic resonance imaging investigation of basic and moral emotions

J Neurosci. 2002 Apr 1;22(7):2730-6. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.22-07-02730.2002.


Humans are endowed with a natural sense of fairness that permeates social perceptions and interactions. This moral stance is so ubiquitous that we may not notice it as a fundamental component of daily decision making and in the workings of many legal, political, and social systems. Emotion plays a pivotal role in moral experience by assigning human values to events, objects, and actions. Although the brain correlates of basic emotions have been explored, the neural organization of "moral emotions" in the human brain remains poorly understood. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and a passive visual task, we show that both basic and moral emotions activate the amygdala, thalamus, and upper midbrain. The orbital and medial prefrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus are also recruited by viewing scenes evocative of moral emotions. Our results indicate that the orbital and medial sectors of the prefrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus region, which are critical regions for social behavior and perception, play a central role in moral appraisals. We suggest that the automatic tagging of ordinary social events with moral values may be an important mechanism for implicit social behaviors in humans.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Echo-Planar Imaging
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Face
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / anatomy & histology
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Pain Measurement
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Social Perception
  • Violence