PLoS One. 2014;9(2):e87427
BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: Human morality has been investigated using a variety of tasks ranging from judgments of hypothetical dilemmas to viewing morally salient stimuli. These experiments have provided insight into neural correlates of moral judgments and emotions, yet these approaches reveal important differences in moral cognition. Moral reasoning tasks require active deliberation while moral emotion tasks involve the perception of stimuli with moral implications. We examined convergent and divergent brain activity associated with these experimental paradigms taking a quantitative meta-analytic approach.
DATA SOURCE: A systematic search of the literature yielded 40 studies. Studies involving explicit decisions in a moral situation were categorized as active (nâ=â22); studies evoking moral emotions were categorized as passive (nâ=â18). We conducted a coordinate-based meta-analysis using the Activation Likelihood Estimation to determine reliable patterns of brain activity.
RESULTS & CONCLUSIONS: Results revealed a convergent pattern of reliable brain activity for both task categories in regions of the default network, consistent with the social and contextual information processes supported by this brain network. Active tasks revealed more reliable activity in the temporoparietal junction, angular gyrus and temporal pole. Active tasks demand deliberative reasoning and may disproportionately involve the retrieval of social knowledge from memory, mental state attribution, and construction of the context through associative processes. In contrast, passive tasks reliably engaged regions associated with visual and emotional information processing, including lingual gyrus and the amygdala. A laterality effect was observed in dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, with active tasks engaging the left, and passive tasks engaging the right. While overlapping activity patterns suggest a shared neural network for both tasks, differential activity suggests that processing of moral input is affected by task demands. The results provide novel insight into distinct features of moral cognition, including the generation of moral context through associative processes and the perceptual detection of moral salience.