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Brain Struct Funct. 2012 Oct;217(4):783-96. Epub 2012 Jan 24.

Parsing the neural correlates of moral cognition: ALE meta-analysis on morality, theory of mind, and empathy.

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Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, Medical School, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany.


Morally judicious behavior forms the fabric of human sociality. Here, we sought to investigate neural activity associated with different facets of moral thought. Previous research suggests that the cognitive and emotional sources of moral decisions might be closely related to theory of mind, an abstract-cognitive skill, and empathy, a rapid-emotional skill. That is, moral decisions are thought to crucially refer to other persons' representation of intentions and behavioral outcomes as well as (vicariously experienced) emotional states. We thus hypothesized that moral decisions might be implemented in brain areas engaged in 'theory of mind' and empathy. This assumption was tested by conducting a large-scale activation likelihood estimation (ALE) meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies, which assessed 2,607 peak coordinates from 247 experiments in 1,790 participants. The brain areas that were consistently involved in moral decisions showed more convergence with the ALE analysis targeting theory of mind versus empathy. More specifically, the neurotopographical overlap between morality and empathy disfavors a role of affective sharing during moral decisions. Ultimately, our results provide evidence that the neural network underlying moral decisions is probably domain-global and might be dissociable into cognitive and affective sub-systems.

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