The neural basis of human social values: Evidence from functional MRI

Roland Zahn, Jorge Moll, Mirella Paiva, Griselda Garrido, Frank Krueger, Edward D. Huey, Jordan Grafman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

211 Scopus citations

Abstract

Social values are composed of social concepts (e.g., "generosity" ) and context-dependent moral sentiments (e.g., "pride"). The neural basis of this intricate cognitive architecture has not been investigated thus far. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging while subjects imagined their own actions toward another person (self-agency) which either conformed or were counter to a social value and were associated with pride or guilt, respectively. Imagined actions of another person toward the subjects (other-agency) in accordance with or counter to a value were associated with gratitude or indignation/anger. As hypothesized, superior anterior temporal lobe (aTL) activity increased with conceptual detail in all conditions. During self-agency, activity in the anterior ventromedial prefrontal cortex correlated with pride and guilt, whereas activity in the subgenual cingulate solely correlated with guilt. In contrast, indignation/anger activated lateral orbitofrontal-insular cortices. Pride and gratitude additionally evoked mesolimbic and basal forebrain activations. Our results demonstrate that social values emerge from coactivation of stable abstract social conceptual representations in the superior aTL and context-dependent moral sentiments encoded in fronto-mesolimbic regions. This neural architecture may provide the basis of our ability to communicate about the meaning of social values across cultural contexts without limiting our flexibility to adapt their emotional interpretation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)276-283
Number of pages8
JournalCerebral Cortex
Volume19
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 2009

Keywords

  • Anterior temporal lobe
  • Major depression
  • Moral emotions
  • Semantics
  • Subgenual cingulate cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

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