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05/18/2013 02:17 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

The Complexity of Humans

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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Rebecca Saxe's TEDTalk raises some fascinating questions at the crossroads between neuroscience and moral development. According to her research there is a particular part of our brain called the right TPJ (temporoparietal junction) which is involved specifically in our thinking about how other people understand and view things. The right TPJ is activated when we contemplate the perspective of someone else, even when it differs from our own -- when we put ourselves in someone else's shoes.

Specifically focusing on the ethical aspect of this, Saxe found that when study participants factored in a person's intent as a mitigating factor in determining blame, the right TPJ lit up like a Christmas tree on their lab's functional MRI. Again, this has to do with our thinking about what another person is thinking -- specifically here their intent and motives -- and weighing these into our evaluation of their culpability.

Determining intent is of course a key factor in how our legal system works: We differentiate for example between different types of homicide -- from involuntary manslaughter to premeditated first-degree murder. While all are considered bad because of the consequence of a loss of life, a major factor in determining just how bad it is has to do with intent. Apparently the right TPJ helps us think about that, and so plays a pretty important role in our moral deliberations.

For little kids, things are just wrong, regardless of intent. They are unable to imagine the perspective of others. Of course we all know adults like that too, which raises the question: Is it possible that people who are particularly judgmental have an underdeveloped right TPJ? -- Derek Flood

Saxe's research further shows that the ability to determine culpability is something we develop over time. Young children see things in black and white. For little kids, things are just wrong, regardless of intent. They are unable to imagine the perspective of others. Of course we all know adults like that too, which raises the question: Is it possible that people who are particularly judgmental have an underdeveloped right TPJ? If so, are there concrete ways for them to strengthen their right TPJ function so they can better understand the perspectives of others?

The jury is still out on that one, so to speak. It's too soon to say at this point since the research is quite recent, but one thing seems clear: The more we study the brain, the more we discover its role in things we associate with moral character -- conscience, self-control, empathy, relating to others, and so on. Understanding the role our brains play in the function and development of these things of course has a huge impact on nearly every aspect of our lives together -- affecting everything from interpersonal relationships with our loved ones and partners, to how we raise our kids, to how we deal with crime, to how we approach politics.

In regards to crime specifically, what we are learning about neuroscience on a broader level suggests that we may need to go beyond these classic questions of blameworthiness and intent altogether. Neurologically speaking, we can safely assume that there is something dysfunctional with the brains of violent criminals, but does that mean they are less culpable? Neuroscientist and bestselling author David Eagleman argues that this is ultimately the wrong question to ask. Instead of determining blameworthiness, he argues that we need to instead determine modifiability. Can we help a person to actually change and become a healthy member of society, and if so how? Where rehabilitation is possible, this should be our goal, but understanding what is specifically wrong neurobiologically is key to successful rehabilitation. What an incarcerated addict needs is not necessarily the same as the convict who lacks empathy. So approaching this effectively requires recognizing that the one-size-fits-all approach of our prison systems based on a model of deterrents for offense needs to be re-thought in light of what we have come to understand about psychosocial neuroscience. The alarming rate of recidivism, together with the fact that our prisons are disproportionally populated with drug addicts and the mentally ill underscores this point.

These are the kinds of big picture issues I hope we can explore as we use our right TPJ to think about the thoughts (and brains) of others. In the end, we humans are wonderfully complex, and the more we learn about ourselves on every level, the more tools we will eventually be able to develop to improve our personal and communal lives.

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