A new study has mapped the brain activity of people as they commit graphic acts of violence in a video game, and the results reveal for the first time that a complex decision-making process based on morality is at play, even if the players aren't aware of it.

The study, conducted by researchers from the social neuroscience laboratory at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, recruited 48 male and female volunteers, and asked them to play a series of first-person shooters in which they were required to kill both innocent civilians and enemy soldiers. The volunteers' brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) devices as they played.

"In normal everyday situations, people wouldn't go out and harm other people," lead researcher Pascal Molenberghs told Jessica Kidd at ABC News. "But in certain situations, like, for example, during war, they have often no problems with just killing other people."

While "no problems" seems a little harsh - I'm sure most soldiers who have killed another human being, enemy soldier or not, are affected by it - understanding how the brain reacts to this act when committed in a video game could help us to better understand what goes on in the brains of those who do it in real life.

Looking at the brain scans, Molenberghs' team found that his volunteers had more activity in the lateral (or side) parts of their orbitofrontal cortex when they were killing innocent civilians (unjustified) than when they were killing enemy soldiers (justified). This region in the brain is believed to play a crucial role in unconscious decision-making and conflict resolution, and previous studies have found that if it's damaged in some way, people can have difficulty controlling their anger, or responding to anger in others.

That it fired up when the volunteers were doing something they knew to be morally questionable suggests that their brains were working harder to reconcile their actions. When they believed the violence was justified, their brains settled down and made it easier for them to get the job done. "When they were shooting innocent civilians, this brain area became very active," Molenberghs told Kidd. "But whenever they were shooting the soldiers, this area was not active at all."

The results have been published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

What was surprising to the researchers was how the volunteers were able to so seamlessly switch from feeling slightly bad about killing civilians - even subconsciously - to not feeling anything at all when they were killing the enemy soldiers, Kidd reports.

Molenberghs explains that this ease of switching could give researchers a better understanding of how people, whether consuming violent media or committing true violent acts, can become desensitised:

"People can quite easily switch off this brain area which allows them to commit violence without feeling bad about it. There's not much complex reasoning involved in the process, so it's a very implicit kind of a process that people can quite easily switch off.

Some people seem to have problems switching back because they have learned over a very long period to switch off their emotions. If they then return to a normal situation where they don't fear for their lives, they have problems trying to switch it on again."

If we understand how violent criminals and sociopaths become desensitised, making it easier for them to commit crimes without remorse, says Molenberghs, we'll be better placed to come up with strategies for treating this.

Brb, going to find a spare scientist and an fMRI machine to find out exactly what happens in my brain when I rule at Dark Souls so scientists can bottle it and sell it back to me.

Source: ABC News