Washington, May 19 : American neuroscientists are using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a type of brain scan that measures blood flow, to understand what happens in the brain when a person makes moral judgements, develops beliefs and understands languages.
Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has already identified an area of the brain (the temporoparietal junction) that lights up when people think about other people's thoughts.
"(That finding is) one of the most astonishing discoveries in the field of human cognitive neuroscience," Science Daily quoted Nancy Kanwisher, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and Saxe's PhD thesis adviser, as saying.
"We already knew that some parts of the brain are involved in specific aspects of perception and motor control, but many doubted that an abstract high-level cognitive process like understanding another person's thoughts would be conducted in its own private patch of cortex," Kanwisher said.
Saxe says that though the fact that fMRI reveals brain activity indirectly by monitoring blood flow rather than the firing of neurons causes it to be considered a fairly rough tool for studying cognition, it still offers an approach for neuroscientists.
She says that more precise techniques that record activity from single neurons cannot be used in humans because they are too invasive.
On the other hand, according to her, fMRI gives a general snapshot of brain activity, offering insight into what parts of the brain are involved in complex cognitive activities.
In her recent study, Saxe particularly focused on what happens in the brain when people judge whether others are behaving morally.
Volunteers participating in her study had to make decisions regarding classic morality scenarios, such as whether it is okay to flip a switch that would divert a runaway train onto a track where it would kill on person instead of five persons.
Saxe says that judging people's behavior in such situations appears to be a complex process that depends on more than just the outcome of an event.
"Two events with the exact same outcome get extremely different reactions based on our inferences of someone's mental state and what they were thinking," she says.
She says that judgements often depend on whether the judging person is in conflict with the one whose actions are being judged.
Saxe revealed that her future study would focus on how children develop beliefs regarding groups in longstanding conflict with their own group-such as Muslims and Serbs in the former Yugoslavia or Sunnis and Shiites in parts of the Middle East.
Her team will first try to identify brain regions that are active while people thing about members of a conflict group.
Thereafter, the researchers would test what changes mediation efforts like "peace camps", which bring together children from two conflict groups, may introduce.