Imagining being the agent of actions that carry different moral consequences: an fMRI study

Neuropsychologia. 2011 Sep;49(11):2994-3001. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.06.024. Epub 2011 Jul 6.


To investigate the contribution of agency to neural processing involved in aggression and morality, participants viewed in the MRI scanner a series of short visual scenarios in which an individual was either intentionally harming another person or easing the other's pain. They were required to mentally simulate being the perpetrator or the recipient of those actions. Functional connectivity analyses demonstrate that positive agency (easing the pain of another) was associated with increased activity in ventral striatum, while negative agency (harming the other) resulted in a strong signal decrease in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and activation in the amygdala. Overall, our data show that explicit perspective taking strategy has profound impact on the neural recruitment associated with distinct behaviors as well as their moral consequences. Results from this study can inform new strategies both for therapeutic interventions for patients with socioemotional disorders and the education of medical practitioners.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Altruism
  • Amygdala / physiology
  • Basal Ganglia / physiology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Motion Pictures
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Young Adult