Stress, Brain Wiring, Empathy and Morality

Stress and moral behaviour

Chronic stress might affect empathy and morality through its effect on neurotransmitters within the brain, primarily serotonin. Although the relationship between serotonin and depression is complex, we find that most effective anti-depressant medications work by raising levels of serotonin, implying that serotonin availability is defective in depression. 

Some studies suggest that chronic stress may also cause a reduction in serotonin availability. 

If something affects serotonin, it has the potential of profoundly affecting one’s moral compass, as demonstrated by a rather striking study published earlier this year. A group of healthy volunteers were asked if they were willing to put themselves and others through an electric shock in return for a cash reward. The higher their serotonin level, the more reluctant they were to put others and themselves through this ordeal, despite the temptation of the reward. This remarkable finding shows how serotonin levels can affect kindness, empathy and even moral behaviour.

Mithu Storoni MD, PhD i