Brain Scans Reveal How People Justify Murder

A new study using brain scans reveals how everyone can become killers in specific situations, showing how brain activity varies according to whether killing can be considered justified.

Regarding the study, Dr. Pascal Molenberghs of Monash University in Australia recruited participants sign up for computer games during which they imagined themselves shooting innocent civilians — unjustified violence — or enemy soldiers — justified violence. Their brain activity was recorded via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) whilst they played.

Based on Molenberghs, the results provide clues about how people in certain situations, for instance war, are able to commit extreme violence against others.

“When participants imagined themselves shooting civilians in relation to soldiers, greater PostTraumatic Stress Disorder activation was obtainable from the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), a key brain area involved with making moral decisions,” he said.

“The more post traumatic stress disorder guilt participants felt about shooting civilians, the more the response in the whole lateral OFC. When shooting enemy soldiers, no activation was seen in lateral OFC.”

The outcome demonstrate that the neural mechanisms that might be typically implicated with harming others lessen active when the violence against a particular group can be considered justified.

“The findings show that when a person is accountable for the thing they see as justified or unjustified violence, they will show different Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome feelings of guilt linked to that — as a first we can realize this guilt is connected with specific brain activation,” he explained.

Molenberghs is director of this very Monash Social Neuroscience Lab, which studies morality, empathy and group membership to gain a better understanding of how social problems which can include racism and in-group bias develop. He was quoted saying he would like further investigate how everyone become desensitized to violence and the way personality plus the group membership of both perpetrators and victims influences these processes.