Shame has an evolutionary purpose, say researchers

A new study finds why shame is important for human societies.

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  • Scientists studied how people view shame in 15 societies across the world.
  • Human societies developed shame as a way for people to act in the group's interest.
  • Shame acts like pain, warning us of a threat to our long-term wellbeing.
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Surprising Science

Here's why MIT scientists want to develop a robot drinking buddy

It's not just for the lols. If you're up for some soul-searching, they need you to contribute to this MIT research survey...

Image: Bongo Entertainment Inc.

I recently had a conversation with a colleague that works with me in the MIT AgeLab. He specializes in AI and machine learning. As we walked and discussed his current work on autonomous vehicles, I asked him, “Where would you like to take your research?” Without missing a beat he responded, “I would like to build a robot that you would want to have a conversation with.”

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Sex & Relationships

Your brain makes moral judgements—and it may be making mistakes

Ever heard a story that made you sick to your stomach? There is neurological wizardry at work that makes our sense of morality so visceral—and flawed.

Have you ever witnessed something that made you sick to your stomach? Have you listened to a story so evil that you felt you might faint? Humans are different from other animals because we have a mind for symbolism. This knack for metaphor complicates our lives, and that is evident at a neurological level. Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, explains that our insular cortex evolved to teach us to feel disgusted by things that would harm us: the taste of rotten fruit, the smell of infection—those triggers set off a visceral reaction (like nausea, gagging, vomiting). Gradually, our societies developed a concept of moral transgression but evolution didn't keep pace. Rather than evolve a new brain region to process moral disgust, it was (and is) funneled through the insular cortex. Our bodies can't tell the difference between moral and visceral disgust, which is why we very often mistake things that are strange to us as things that are bad or immoral. This explains why people are so judgmental about alternative lifestyles, and feel confident labelling other people's decisions as "wrong" and theirs as "right". Awareness of this misattributed impulse reaction can hopefully help us pause and think beyond our faulty wiring. Our moral instincts may be seriously flawed. Robert Sapolsky is the author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.

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Mind & Brain