Moral behavior is a conduct mainly concerned with the code of interpersonal behavior that is regarded right or acceptable in a particular society or community.
Moral sensitivity, moral motivation, moral judgment and moral character are the four components of moral behavior. All these four components individually do at least have something to do with our personality, but moral behavior, as a whole, is a core component of our identity.
According to new study, memory is not something that shapes us who we are but it is the moral behavior which is the most important indicator of our identity – especially for people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
A team of researchers led by Nina Strohminger of the Yale University and co-author Shaun Nichols of the University of Arizona recruited 248 participants who had family members suffering from one of three types of neurodegenerative diseases – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), frontotemporal dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
Frontotemporal dementia is a rare disorder related to Alzheimer’s disease but specifically associated with changes to frontal lobe function caused by progressive nerve cell damage. It can lead to loss of function in these brain areas, thereby affecting moral behavior and cause deterioration in personality.
Like Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia is also associated with cognitive changes. However, ALS is associated with the loss of loss of voluntary motor control.
Researchers asked the participants about how the symptoms of these diseases had affected their partners and how much their relationship with the patient had deteriorated since the disease started to appear. Participants reported how much they thought the patient’s identity had changed because of the disease.
The results of the study revealed that both Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia did more identity disruption compared to that of ALS. No other symptoms such as depression, amnesia, and changes in personality traits, had an adverse influence on identity change as much as moral behavior did.
“Contrary to what you might think — and what generations of philosophers and psychologists have assumed — memory loss itself doesn’t make someone seem like a different person. Nor do most other factors, such as personality change, loss of higher-level cognition, depression, or the ability to function in daily activities,” said Nina Strohminger
According to study, the degree of perceived identity change is associated with how much the participants think their relationship with patient has deteriorated. Researchers said this correlation is directly driven by how severely the patient’s moral behavior has changed.
“Continuing to see a loved one as the same person they’ve always been is crucial to the health of the social bond,” said Strohminger.
Aphasia is also associated with perceived identity, but not as much as moral behavior. Aphasia is a disorder caused by damage in the regions of the brain that control language. It causes impairment of language and affects one’s ability to read or write or speak.
“When you think about it, it makes perfect sense: Language is the most precise tool we have for conveying the content our minds to others,” said Strohminger.
“If someone loses this ability, it may be easy to see that person as having vanished as well.”
According to Alzheimer’s Association, it is estimated that 36 million people are living with some form of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Parkinson’s disease, motor neurone diseases and prion diseases.
“Most of us know someone with neurodegenerative disease or some form of cognitive decline. Whether a loved one’s self disappears or persists through the progression of this condition depends very much on which parts of the mind are affected,” Strohminger concludes.
Researchers hope these new findings can provide new insights on treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. They want to make sure every future therapies for neurodegenerative disease must address the issue of preserving moral function and their treatments do not lead to some kinds of moral dysfunction.
[Hat Tip: Psychological Science, Image: Zivot S Alzheimerom]