Individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) appear far more sensitive when it comes to moral dilemmas.
“Faced with a problem of this type, people suffering from this type of anxiety disorder show that they worry considerably more,” said Carles Soriano, Ph.D., researcher at Hospital de Bellvitge in Barcelona.
For the new study, scientists looked at the neurofunctional basis of this increased moral sensitivity. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, they measured the brain activity of a group of 73 patients with OCD and 73 healthy patients.
All participants had to face a variety of moral problems in which they had to choose between two alternatives both leading to very negative consequences.
For example, they were asked to imagine themselves in a hypothetical war. Enemy soldiers lie in wait to attack and the entire village is hiding in a cellar. A baby starts to cry. If nobody makes the baby stop, the enemy soldiers will find them. Would it be justifiable to smother the baby’s cry, possibly suffocating it to save the others?
The results demonstrated that during situations of moral dilemma, the brains of those with OCD showed a higher degree of activation in the orbitofrontal cortex, especially in the medial part, which is associated with decision making and the development of moral sentiment.
“The majority [of people with OCD] are characterized by being obsessed with dirt and compulsive cleaning or by doubting that they have carried out important actions properly, like turning off the gas. Such behavior makes then repeatedly check whether they have performed such actions,” said Soriano.
There are other types of obsessions and compulsions as well, such as needing objects in the environment to be perfectly symmetrical and in order.
There are also those that suffer from involuntary and unwanted thoughts of a sexual or religious kind. They may feel unsure whether they have committed a sexual act that is unacceptable in their opinion or they worry that they have blasphemed God.
“The last group of patients is identified for precisely having a higher level of moral hypersensitivity,” said Soriano.
The research included help from experts at Barcelona’s Hospital del Mar and the University of Melbourne in Australia.
Source: Archives of General Psychiatry