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Annals Reviews Neuroscientific Research on Human Values and Fairness

Papers highlight research on empathy, sacred values, and cooperation, and how what the learn can help us understand human conflicts.

Published August 10, 2009

Can social and affective neuroscience explain what makes suicide bombers capable of sacrificing themselves for a belief? Can brain imaging studies help to illuminate why members of one race believe they are superior to another, why consumers take risks in the marketplace or how subliminal messages affect the outcome of political polling?

A June volume of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, “Values, Empathy and Fairness across Social Barriers,” explores these and other provocative questions. This volume is based on selected presentations at the first Barcelona Social Brain Conference, held in November 2008. The conference was organized under the auspices of the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), the European Science Foundation, and the Catalan Research Foundation, as well as the Social Brain Chair (Autonomous University of Barcelona).

Using the tools of neuroscience and social science, researchers have learned a great deal about the brain's role in human behavior and interactions. In two-dozen papers in this volume of Annals, experts from around the world address what scientists know about the “social brain” and a variety of behaviors, including religious extremism, terrorism and war. The invited chapters examine the human qualities of empathy, sacred values, and cooperation, and focus on the ways that can be used to understand human conflict.

The volume is edited by some of the world’s top authorities on “social brain” research – Scott Atran (University of Michigan); Arcadi Navarro (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona); Kevin Ochsner (Columbia University); Adolf Tobeña (Autonomous University of Barcelona) and Oscar Vilarroya (University of Barcelona, Spain).

“Merging data and models might improve the still developing power of multidisciplinary approaches to very nuanced phenomena,” the editors say in their introduction to the volume. “Whether this knowledge will serve one day to … foster "ruling human communities according to high standards of values and morality" remains to be seen.”