The Moral & Social Brain lab
The Moral & Social Brain lab has been created and is currently led by Prof. Dr. Emilie A. Caspar (Ghent University, Belgium). Our main mission is to uncover the neural basis of (im)moral behaviors. To do so, we seek to understand how humans take agency and responsibility over their actions and how they perceive and feel the pain that they could cause to others. The sense of agency is an incredible ability for humans, probably one that allowed us to achieve critical steps in our development across human history. More than any other animals, humans have transformed and built their environment because they can take credits for their accomplishments. When we perform actions, we are able to recognize these actions as our owns and to take responsibility over the consequences of those actions because we experience agency. The sense of agency and the feeling of responsibility are thus critical neuro-cognitive processes associated with our decisions to act in a « good » or « bad » way. Empathy is also an incredible capacity for shaping and coloring our social interactions as it allows us to understand how others feel. Understanding the feeling of others is of course also shaped by both environmental factors, such as our culture, education or life experiences, and contextual factors. But first and foremost, our capacity to empathize with others is wired deep inside our brains. Empathy is primarily an inner capacity that all humans supposedly possess and which prevent us to hurt others, be it emotionally or physically.
We also study the consequences of immoral actions. After a genocide, a war, or any dramatic conflict or event, only desolation remains. The victims who survive face psychological trauma in addition to sometimes permanent physical disabilities. So do their relatives, who witness the suffering of their beloved ones and feel unable to help. Their children and even grandchildren, who inherit through genetics and social transmission the sequelae of their parents’ trauma suffer, as well. Even perpetrators claiming reduced responsibility in an attempt to escape the Law of Men are unlikely to avoid the mental torments that could affect their mind. They indeed have to deal with the psychological consequences of what they did or were ordered to do, and may experience trauma, guilt, and shame after the events, which can lead to mental health issues. We thus also seek to understand how affective and non-affective brain alterations evolve years after a dramatic event, and also affect the following generations regarding their mental health and prejudice attitudes towards others.
Our current works include the following research questions:
What Neuro-cognitive mechanisms play a role in preventing individuals from complying with immoral orders?
Can we develop efficient tools to reduce radicalized behaviors and prejudice attitudes?
What are the neural basis of the sense of agency, of the feeling of responsibility and of the feeling of guilt?
Can brain-to-brain synchrony predict prosocial attitudes?
How does being in prison impact neuro-cognitive processes involved in decision-making?
How is a trauma due to a genocide transferred to the next generation individuals and how does it impact social cognition?
Our research methods are strongly embedded into cognitive and social neurosciences, with a combination of EEG, (f)MRI, and behavioral measurements. But we do not restrict our methods to neurosciences and cognitive psychology only. We value interdisciplinarity to answer our research questions and we currently collaborate with researchers from various scientific disciplines, such as Sociology, Philosophy, Social Psychology, Engineering, Robotics, Law and Criminology. Because of the high societal relevance of our work, we do not only work in collaborations with academics. We also collaborate with NGOs, with international and local associations, as well as with policy-makers (e.g. Radio La Benevolencija Humanitarian Tool Foundation, Prison Fellowship Rwanda, Breaking The Silence, Documentation Center Cambodia). We strongly believe that combining interdisciplinarity and collaborations with both academic and non-academic institutions is a critical way to produce meaningful scientific approaches and to have a global overview of the societal, historical and human contexts surrounding our projects.
Beyond uncovering the neural basis of (im)moral behaviors, another of the lab’s missions is to open neuroscience research to populations who are never approached by researchers in neuroscience. In neurosciences, we usually test the WEIRDs (that are, western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic people), mostly in Europe or in North America. As a consequence, we have actually no idea whether the theories we draw are valid on other populations , especially since we know that culture can influence our brains. In the lab, we want to work with populations who are barely approached by neurosciences in order to have a more global understanding of human cognition and behavior. Some of our projects include inmates, military, former perpetrators and survivors of the genocide in Rwanda and in Cambodia. Working with such populations is a very intense human experience as well as an incredible opportunity for neuroscience research.
If you are interested in our research topics, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us for a Ph.D. thesis or a Postdoc or scientific collaborations and join the adventure!
The Moral & Social Brain lab is equipped to integrate research in humans but also to conduct field research across the world. For this purpose, the lab has the following equipment:
- Portable EEG systems (adapted to hyperscanning recordings as well)
- 3T-MRI scanner
Caspar, E.A., Lo Bue, S., Magalhaes De Saldanha da Gama, P.A., Haggard, P., & Cleeremans A. (2020). The effect of military training on the sense of agency and outcome processing. Nature Communications, 11(1), 1-10. (IF=11.880).
Caspar, E.A., Ioumpa, K., Keysers, C. & Gazzola, V. (2020). Obeying orders reduces vicarious brain activation towards victims’ pain. NeuroImage, 117251. (IF=5.902).
Caspar, E.A., Christensen, J., Cleeremans, A., & Haggard P. (2016). Coercion changes the sense of agency in the human brain. Current Biology, 26, 585-592. (IF=8.851).
Caspar, E. A., Pech, G. P., Gishoma, D., & Kanazayire, C. (2022). On the impact of the genocide on the intergroup empathy bias between former perpetrators, survivors, and their children in Rwanda. American Psychologist. (IF=10.886). Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0001066