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Not so fast: Morals can’t keep pace


Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC College. (Credit: Philip Channing)

USC (US)—Moral reactions take time. In a fast-moving digital landscape, our better selves may be struggling to catch up.

That finding by a neuroscience group at the University of Southern California comes from one of the first brain studies of inspirational emotions in a field dominated by a focus on fear and pain. The results suggest digital media culture may be better suited to some mental processes than others, and that emotions linked to our moral sense awaken slowly in the mind.

“For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection,” says study first author Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the USC Rossier School of Education.

Humans can sort information very quickly and can respond in fractions of seconds to signs of physical pain in others. Admiration and compassion—two of the social emotions that define humanity—take much longer.

The study, led by Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC College, used compelling, real-life stories to induce admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social pain, in 13 volunteers (the emotion felt was verified through a careful protocol of pre- and post-imaging interviews).

Brain imaging showed that the volunteers needed six to eight seconds to fully respond to stories of virtue or social pain. However, once awakened, the responses lasted far longer than the volunteers’ reactions to stories focused on physical pain.

The study raises questions about the emotional cost—particularly for the developing brain—of heavy reliance on a rapid stream of news snippets.

“Damasio’s study has extraordinary implications for the human perception of events in a digital communication environment,” says USC Annenberg media scholar Manuel Castells, holder of the Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society at USC. “Lasting compassion in relationship to psychological suffering requires a level of persistent, emotional attention.”

“If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality,” says Immordino-Yang.

While normal life events will always provide opportunities for humans to feel admiration and compassion, fast-paced digital media tools may direct some heavy users away from traditional avenues for learning about humanity, such as engagement with literature or face-to-face social interactions.

Immordino-Yang does not blame digital media. “It’s not about what tools you have, it’s about how you use those tools,” she adds.

Castells says he is less concerned about online social spaces, some of which can provide opportunities for reflection, than about “fast-moving television or virtual games.”

“In a media culture in which violence and suffering becomes an endless show, be it in fiction or in infotainment, indifference to the vision of human suffering gradually sets in,” he adds.

Damasio agrees: “What I’m more worried about is what is happening in the (abrupt) juxtapositions that you find, for example, in the news. “When it comes to emotion, because these systems are inherently slow, perhaps all we can say is, not so fast.”

The National Institutes on Health, the Mathers Foundation, and the Brain and Creativity Institute’s endowment funded the study.

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