Moral Development and the Brain

Moral reasoning is the ability a person has to reason in and through social, ethical, and emotional situations. One component of moral reasoning is moral behavior, which is the intentional and voluntary acting in a prosocial manner (Walker, 2004). Moral behavior and reasoning are the foundation for “many human social and cultural institutions such as family structures, legal and political government systems that affect the lives of virtually every person” (Eslinger, Flaherty-Craig, & Benton, 2004, p. 100). Often situations in life are morally ambiguous and involve a choice between two actions that both have consequences that may or may not be in opposition to each other. Some researchers, such as Lawrence Kohlberg, believe that people will reason through these situations at varying levels or stages, with some in a very concrete and egotistic manner and others in an abstract and universal manner.

Lawrence Kohlberg was the first researcher to come up with a major testable theory of moral development. He formulated six stages of development, with most adults reaching stage four, a few five, and very few stage six. The first two stages are at the pre-conventional level (typically self-centered and concrete reasoning), stages three and four are at the conventional level (recognition of social norms and laws), and the last two stages at the post-conventional level (recognition of universal rights and responsibilities). While Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is a stage model, the progression through the stages is not necessarily viewed as invariant. This means that people reach them at different rates and do not always reason at a particular stage with any given dilemma. There is significant variability within and between people in moral reasoning abilities. Most research focuses on between-person variability.

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Moral Development

Reason and DesireLawrence Kohlberg developed a theory of moral development in humans that has been quite influential in emotion and moral reasoning developmental psychology. He believed that most adults reason at the 3rd or 4th stage level. A few reach the 5th and very few reach the 6th. However, people can reason at different levels at different times, with someone using stage 5 reasoning one day and stage 3 the next. However, people do tend to reason at one particular level more often than at other levels. The stages of moral development are as follows:

Rules outside oneself

Stage 1: Heteronomous morality

  1. Punishment-and-obedience orientation
  2. What is wrong is punished
  3. What is right is rewarded or not punished

Stage 2: Individualism, instrumental purpose, and exchange

  1. Naïve hedonism
  2. Egocentric or needs-based

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Continuing the Introduction to Human Development

I’m now back in the country after my long and very eventful trip. The brain imaging conference was fabulous. Anyway, I just wanted to add a few more of my development lecture slides in PDF format. They are fairly brief and again, just outlines of the material but I tried to fill in a little more info.

I’ll post some more neuroscience material soon – I just have to get caught up on a week’s worth of missed school and related work.

Biological Influences on Development

Prenatal Development

Infant Development

Introducing Developmental Psychology

I’m sorry for the bereft of posts recently. I’ve been talking vacation since summer classes ended. Classes start up again in about a week. Once again, I’m sorry for not updating.

I used to teach a lifespan development class. I’ve posted the slides from the first couple of lectures. I briefly cover the topics of development in general as well as a number of the theories of development. As these were lecture slides, they are merely outlines and not packed full of information but the info they provide should be sufficient to obtain a basic knowledge of the concepts. At the very least it can serve as a springboard in the the vast pool of developmental psychology.

The lectures are in PDF format.

Overview of Developmental Psychology

Developmental Theories

Language Development and TV

Time is reporting about research conducted at the University of Washington showing a correlation between watching baby videos/shows and slower language development. That is, the more time that children spend watching TV, the fewer words they know, on average.Child and TVs

Here’s a link to the article.

This shouldn’t mean parents should rule out letting their kids watch TV or even edutainment but parents should be cautious about how much their kids really are watching. Also, they need to take time to play and talk with their kids – as much as possible. Really young children (less than 6-9 months) probably shouldn’t be watching any TV, especially if it is being used as a “pacifier” for them.

Human brain development

The brain is a magnificent organ. It is the reason humans spend 9 months in utero – to give the brain time to develop sufficiently. Human infants could even spend more time in the womb but due to birth canal size restraints, 9 months of development and head growth is all that mothers can handle. The human brain at birth has an over-abundance of neurons. Within the first 2 years of life, the brain prunes back the number of neurons as they are unneeded. Even in adulthood the number of neurons in the Central Nervous System (brain and spinal cord) is astounding – estimated at 100 billion! The number of connections between neurons – composed of dendrites, axons, and synapses – is estimated at 100 trillion.

At birth, few areas of the brain are well-myelinated. Myelin is a largely lipid-based substance (part of a type of glial cell; glial cells serve in mainly supportive roles to neurons) that wraps around the axons of neurons, like insulation around electrical wires, which increases the speed of transmission of action potentials – electrical impulses that travel down the axon when the signal is outgoing (or down the dendrites if the action potential is incoming). Myelination of the brain is not complete until into a person’s third decade of life, with the frontal lobes being myelinated last. The frontal lobes provide a lot of the oversight and control of the brain – decision making, language, and problem solving – so this slowness to myelinate in part explains children’s and adolescents’ often less-than-ideal reasoning (not that adults have wonderful reasoning all the time but adults often are more likely to think things through and be able to reason with complexity about situations and ideas).

So, the brain is such a complex and marvelous organ that it is a wonder that it develops so well most of the time.